‘Free and Fearless Inquiry’ Must Prevail on College Campuses, George Will Urges

April 26, 2023
George Will speaking at podium at University of Virginia

Political pundit and conservative columnist George Will spoke of the importance of free speech on college campuses Tuesday at the University of Virginia. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Opening college campuses to more robust free speech and respecting the First Amendment would create a freer society, Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative newspaper columnist George Will told a University of Virginia audience Tuesday evening.

But, Will told the packed Minor Hall Auditorium audience, efforts to control people by controlling culture are challenging the future of universities.

“I believe that the great research universities in the Western world are the finest ornaments of Western civilization. They evolved precariously through 800 years of classical and political thickets, fending off interference. Their magnificent legacy can, however, be squandered in a generation,” he said. “They can fall under the control of people who are unsympathetic, even hostile to the university’s noble and timeless mission: free and fearless inquiry and disputation.”

The appearance was co-sponsored by the Jefferson Council and the UVA Center for Politics.

Will suggested that many universities are curtailing dissenting opinions because some students “are haunted by an exaggerated sense of the harms, from which they think they need protection.”

He said he believes those who would silence contrary opinions likely believe human beings are molded by the culture, rather than having inalienable rights and molding culture themselves. If the culture controls the people, he said, it is necessary to control the culture.

“What if human beings are merely creatures that take whatever shape is imposed by them?” he said. “If so, then controlling the culture becomes imperative. And politics must saturate every nook and cranny of life. And this saturation will inevitably mean controlling what people say and hear, read, think and teach.”

That leads to the idea that everything in society impacts everyone’s self-interest and that people need to be protected, he said.

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“So anyone can claim to be harmed by anything said, or read, or written, or taught. Hence, unfettered discretion, unfettered discussion means that harm is potentially ubiquitous. So everyone’s welfare is precarious. Everyone is always in immediate danger of being harmed,” he said.

Free speech and free expression have emerged as hotly debated issues across American universities, with conservatives often criticizing colleges as stunting those voices. At UVA, leaders regularly emphasize the institution’s commitment to free expression, open dialogue and a diversity of thought.

In early 2021, UVA created a commission to articulate UVA’s commitment to free expression and free inquiry, and in June 2021 the University’s Board of Visitors unanimously endorsed the committee’s statement on free expression.

“The University of Virginia unequivocally affirms its commitment to free expression and free inquiry,” read the opening lines of the statement. “All views, beliefs, and perspectives deserve to be articulated and heard free from interference.” 

The full statement acknowledges and highlights UVA’s unique historic connection to free expression and the emergence of the First Amendment – included in the Bill of Rights introduced by James Madison when he represented the congressional district that would become home to the University of Virginia. Writings by Madison and UVA’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, would extend interpretations of the First Amendment and help cement the public’s awareness of its meaning, the statement says.

It also states that UVA as a state institution is bound by the Constitution, including the First Amendment.

In his speech Tuesday night, Will also highlighted that historic connection.

“The First Amendment was written to implement the natural rights philosophy that was given imperishable articulation by the founder of the University of Virginia,” he said.

Following his prepared remarks, Will participated in a lively and wide-ranging question-and-answer session with audience members.

Topics ranged from his views on professional baseball’s pitch clock (in favor) and the chances of the Washington Nationals winning another World Series (not in our lifetime) to how deeply politics has crept into Americans’ daily lives, how technology has worsened political division and how broken families impact poverty.

Media Contact

Bryan McKenzie

Assistant Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications