Waldron Gives Holmes Lecture

NYU professor examines the U.S. Constitution and hate speech laws


Professor Jeremy Waldron of New York University gave a series of three lectures on “Dignity and Defamation: The Visibility of Hate” as part of the Holmes Lectures held every three years at the Harvard Law School.

In the series—which was launched in 1954 at the bequest of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes—Waldron covered three general areas each lecture: “Why We Call Hate Speech Group Libel,” “What a Well-ordered Society Looks Like” and “Libel and Legitimacy.”

Giving a contrast between the United States and other developed democratic countries such as Great Britain and Canada, he provided constructive criticism and ideas about hate speech and dignity.

“People in the US are ignorant about laws in other countries,” he said. Waldron pointed to the United States Constitution’s inherent protection of hate speech under the first amendment, calling the US “an outlier” in that it is one of the few nations from those he discussed that overlooks international law prohibiting racial commentaries.


He mentioned that he has “no real optimism towards changing the constitution,” in reference to the “robustly misinterpreted” first amendment that endorses free speech.

But he hoped that the US can perhaps be open-minded and look at constitutions from other countries, expressing the necessity to preserve the dignity of minority groups without compromising free speech.

Waldron began his first lecture by describing a critical rebuke he received in response to his own negative commentary about Antony Lewis’ book “Freedom for the Thoughts that We Hate.”

“You are a totalitarian asshole,” read one of the e-mails he received.

“People of good faith react”, was Waldron’s response. “You must expect some disagreement when talking about inherently controversial matters”.

This was, of course, not the only dissenting opinion expressed in the series. During and after his lecture, his ideals and ways of approaching his claims were challenged by the audience.

“It’s premature to evaluate where he will be taking it”, responded visiting Professor Jim Pfander after the first lecture, dubious of the approach he’s observed thus far.

Some students had even harsher replies. Christopher J. Szabla, a student at Harvard Law School, said that “it is intriguing that he tried to rehash an old theme. But his arguments lack development.”

Despite the harsh reactions, the lecture was highly anticipated.

Rachel Haron expressed enthusiasm since the lecture addressed “issues that are not really discussed in class and are alien to the US constitution and society.”

At the very least, “intriguing”, is a quality most audience members, both those in agreement and against Waldron’s views, attributed to the lecture.


An earlier version of the Oct. 8 news article "Waldron Gives Holmes Lecture" incorrectly quoted law student Christopher J. Szabla as saying he found it "stimulating" that Professor Jeremy Waldron rehashed an "old theme" in his lectures. In fact, the word Szabla used to describe the theme was "intriguing."