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2020-2021                  Andrea Mitchell Center Faculty Workshop Series                  2020-2021

Free speech has re-emerged in recent years as a significant political rallying cry, as political polarization and shifting cultural sensitivities have worked  to intensify the struggles in many democratic countries over the boundaries of acceptable speech.  These struggles are far from new, but in the contemporary context emerging media platforms have presented new challenges to the regulation and protection of open expression. In this environment, businesses and civil-society organizations throughout the world contend with issues of political speech and related boycotts, while in the U.S., social and legal developments require us to rethink our interpretations and implementation of the First Amendment. In its 2020-2021 theme year, FREE SPEECH BATTLES, The Andrea Mitchell Center examines both the contentious history of free expression and the ongoing developments that have made it once again a central issue in democratic societies.


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In episodes of the Mitchell Center Podcast, FARA DABHOIWALA describes the secret scandals behind the First Amendment, JOAN WALLACH SCOTT advocates for academic freedom, JAIME SETTLE examines the impact of social media on speech behavior, NEETI NAIR describes the dilemmas of free expression in India, former white nationalist DEREK BLACK describes what compelled him to renounce the hateful ideology of his family, former ACLU president NADINE STROSSEN makes the case against censoring hate speech, and Mitchell Center postdoctoral fellow MATT SHAFER traces the history of the idea of violence. Listen to all episodes at



Matt Shafer University of Pennsylvania

The Crisis of Language

Catherine J. Ross GWU Law

Something Is Rotten

Rahul Sagar NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Shanghai

The Misinformation Revolution

Fara Dabhoiwala Princeton University

Free Speech and History

Genevieve Lakier University of Chicago Law School

Boycotts, the BDS Movement,
and the First Amendment

Mark Thompson Former CEO, New York Times

Keep Calm and Carry On

Catherine J. Ross

Fara Dabhoiwala

Neeti Nair


FREE SPEECH BATTLES is a year-long program of events organized at the Andrea Mitchell Center by the FREE SPEECH BATTLES Planning Committee: Sigal Ben Porath, Chair (GSE); Joe Lowry (Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations); Sophia Rosenfeld (History); Amy Sepinwall (Wharton); Tukufu Zuberi (Sociology); Jeffrey Green, Mitchell Center Director (Political Science); and Matthew Roth, Mitchell Center Assistant Director.

​​THE ANDREA MITCHELL CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF DEMOCRACY at the University of Pennyslvania aims not just to promote, but to understand, democracy. Global in its outlook, multifaceted in its purposes, the Mitchell Center seeks to contribute to the ongoing quest for democratic values, ideas, and institutions throughout the world. In addition to hosting speakers from the fields of academia, journalism, politics, and public policy, the Mitchell Center supports undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral research.  It continues the legacy of the Penn Program for Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism, which fostered interdisciplinary scholarship from 2007 to 2017.

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Sigal Ben-Porath

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CATHERINE J. ROSS George Washington University Law School

Thu. April 15, 5:00-6:30 pm / Zoom links emailed to attendees
A 20% discount code for Prof. Ross's will be shared during her talk

IN HER UPCOMING BOOK, A Right to Lie? Presidents, Other Liars, and the First Amendment, CATHERINE J. ROSS examines the tension between the First Amendment’s protections for free speech and the need to combat the spread of lies that endanger democracy. Verifiable factual falsehoods are rife throughout the public square today, but former President Donald J. Trump’s unparalleled mendacity and its consequences for the nation – measured in threats to electoral legitimacy, COVID-19 deaths, and economic devastation – highlighted the urgent need to confront deception.

Using dramatic stories and cases – from a false Medal of Honor claimant, to birtherism and misuse of defamation claims, to lies in political campaigns – Ross explains why the First Amendment’s guarantee of freewheeling democratic debate means that the Constitution protects most lies. The state, courts hold, cannot become the arbiter of what is true or false, not least because it can often prove impossible to agree on what amounts to falsehood.

Despite the obstacles to regulating public falsehoods in most settings, Ross argues that a mendacious president’s power to damage the body politic, and indeed society as a whole, poses a danger that justifies overriding a liar’s speech rights.

The First Amendment, she argues, is not the problem when it comes to presidential lies: lack of political will, abdication of congressional responsibility, and broader societal fault lines undermine potential solutions. Ross analyzes a question that first came up when Congress threatened President Richard Nixon with impeachment for, among other things, lying to the American public. On what grounds can a president be impeached for lies that do not violate any law? The question arose again with Presidents Clinton and Trump but has never been scrutinized or answered until now.

Ross proposes an approach consistent with First Amendment doctrine and the separation of powers: presidents work for us, they are subject to the lesser speech rights applicable to government employees, and Congress should use its oversight authority to hold the president to a standard of truth.

You can read Prof. Ross's essay here.

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