John Fabian Witt looks at America's history with democracy

Credit: Rosemary Haynes/ Credit: Rosemary Haynes/

On Thursday Feb. 2, John Fabian Witt, the speaker at the sixth annual Thomas M. Kerr Jr. lecture, discussed the subject of American Freedom. Witt is the Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law at Yale Law School and author of award-winning book, Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History and has worked at Columbia University, the University of Texas at Austin, and also received his education at Yale University, where he currently works.

Witt visited Carnegie Mellon University as part of the Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholars program. Phi Beta Kappa, founded in 1776, is the nation’s most prestigious academic honor society. Its goal is to support education in the liberal arts and sciences, recognize academic excellence, and engender freedom of thought.

The title of Witt’s lecture was “The Switch: The Twentieth-Century Reinvention of American Freedom.” Over the course of his speech, he took the audience back in time to the early 20th century, to a time where the First Amendment of the Constitution did not carry the same weight as it does today. He would go on to discuss the course of human rights, how they would change, and what lessons we can learn from the past to apply to the present and future.

He started his lecture by recounting the election of President Warren G. Harding in 1920. Harding was an unlikely choice for the Republican party since there seemed to be more experienced people that the party could have chosen as nominee. However, due to some political maneuvering, he ended up with the nomination and ran against James Cox. This election had implications for the nation since it demonstrated a turn from traditional values and “second raters” were able to win elections.

At the same time, there were many riots and labor strikes going on around the country. One famous failure occurred here in Pittsburgh, in which the Pennsylvania state militia arrived to quell hostilities. The Strike, as it became to be known, is a telling moment in American history, Witt explained, as it demonstrated how the human collective now rallied around what Witt calls “un-reassured politics.”

“Un-reassured politics” refers to the newspapers back then. Witt stated that they were “systematically misleading their readers.” He drew a connection from the lack of responsibility in the 1920s to the modern era, in which there have been many accusations levied against modern news sites for extreme bias. He urged the audience to consider their news sources, and consider whether we are making better choices now than almost 100 years ago.

Witt then went on to discuss the four most important domains of social life which reinterpreted how we use free speech. According to him, these are the arts, the work done on free speech by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), labor movements, and the actions by the state.

An example of the arts influencing free speech are plays and movies that, by modern terms, would be deemed racist. However, in one anecdote Witt shared, he explained that one movie which was boycotted for its racism was written by a man who would eventually lead the NAACP. So was it within his power to write it, or was it a violation of free speech to ban the movie?

The ACLU changed our interpretation of what free speech means. Before this era, you could be jailed for saying the wrong thing, an idea that goes against the grain of our modern values. By fighting against things such as the Espionage Act, which incriminated people that spoke against the war effort, they changed the meaning of free speech to what we identify it as today.

Labor movements were also useful in the change of the 1920s. Both public and private strikes were common in this era, and were one of the defining characteristics of this generation.

Finally, the actions and attitudes of the federal government also influenced this change, which Witt titles “the switch.” With a newfound desire to increase the rights of its population, actions such as the Scopes Trial increased “civil liberties,” a term that began its usage around this era. Thus, a new era of constitutional interpretation was born.

At the end of his speech, Witt asked the audience to consider how we can use the lessons of the past in the present. He urged us to think critically about our rights and how people fought to protect them, and elaborate upon them.