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Federal Judge David Stras Reflects on the Holocaust and First Amendment at Harvard Law School Talk

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Federal judge David R. Stras reflected on his grandparents’ experience in the Holocaust and its implications for the First Amendment at a Harvard Law School lecture Tuesday afternoon.

The event, co-sponsored by the Harvard chapter of the Federalist Society and the Harvard Jewish Law Students Association, featured Stras — an Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals judge — recounting his grandparents’ experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Stras described stories he was told by his grandfather before launching into a discussion of freedom of speech ensured by the First Amendment. During the talk, Stras shared both an emotional reflection on his Jewish identity and an intellectual discussion around law.

“I’ve come to realize though that their stories have done more than just affect me personally. They become part of who I am and how I view the world around me,” Stras said. “To a certain extent, they have also shaped my judging, too, and why I school so firmly to my first principles — those core beliefs that shape how I approach the law.”

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Stras emphasized throughout the lecture that his grandparents’ stories have invaluable lessons for sustaining free societies, such as allowing the unrestrained expression of religion and beliefs.

“The point is that if we decide the government can prohibit offensive speech, speech is not really free anymore,” Stras said.

“No one here is a number, with or without tattoos,” he added, referring to the numbers tattooed to his grandparents’ arms during the Holocaust. “Our values may be different, our beliefs worlds apart — and still the government has no right to tell us what to say or what to believe.”

Stras said society has become increasingly intolerant to “listening to ideas you don’t agree with.”

“My grandfather taught me that as important as it is to defend your own beliefs, it is equally important to listen closely to what other people have to say,” he said.

Stras also discussed Supreme Court rulings on the First Amendment that he believes support his views on freedom of speech.

“As the Supreme Court has put, the bedrock principle of free speech is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society itself finds the idea offensive or disagreeable,” Stras said.

Leaders of the Harvard organizations sponsoring the lecture said they supported the Stras’ message.

Ethan C. Harper, president of HFS, said he agreed with Stras’ emphasis on the importance of preserving freedoms — a principle he said is imperative to maintaining open, productive dialogue among people with varying beliefs and backgrounds.

“We’re all trying to make the world a better place. We might disagree on how to get there, but that discussion and the act and the process of actually going through that really matters in terms of having a functioning democracy,” he said.

JLSA co-president Ari A. Spitzer wrote in an emailed statement that the talk fits into his organization’s overarching goal, which is “to support and promote Jewish life on campus” by providing students with diverse perspectives from Jewish professionals.

“From the feedback I received, the audience seemed to enjoy the event and find the speech meaningful,” Spitzer wrote.

To conclude his speech, Stras quoted a 1979 talk given by his grandfather about the social responsibility of garnering awareness about the Holocaust.

“You question yourself, ‘Why did I survive? Why?’ All of a sudden life is a struggle again. Who can you complain to?” Stras recited. “We, the survivors, have to let the world know that we will never again allow another Holocaust. All of you here in this room — may I call you my friends — we must speak up and let the world know that we are proud of our heritage.”

Sharing stories such as those of his grandfather, Stras said, is fundamental to the First Amendment’s tenet of freedom of expression and to ensuring Holocaust victims are memorialized.

“It is important not only that we remember the words ‘never again,’ but that we never forget what my grandparents and people like him went through,” he said. “I remember grandpa and I will never forget.”

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