Justice Alito Warns of Threats to Freedom of Speech and Religion

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Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. warned on Saturday that freedom of speech was under threat at universities and that freedom of religion was in peril in society at large.

“Troubled waters are slamming against some of our most fundamental principles,” he said.

He made his remarks at a commencement ceremony at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, a Catholic institution.

“Support for freedom of speech is declining dangerously, especially where it should find deepest acceptance,” he said.

A university, he said, should be “a place for reasoned debate.” But he added that “today, very few colleges live up to that ideal.”

The same is true, he said, for tolerance of religious views in society generally.

“Freedom of religion is also imperiled,” he said. “When you venture out into the world, you may well find yourself in a job or a community or a social setting when you will be pressured to endorse ideas you don’t believe or to abandon core beliefs. It will be up to you to stand firm.”

In other settings, Justice Alito has given a specific example, complaining that people opposed to same-sex marriage on religious grounds are sometimes treated as bigots.

As the Supreme Court prepares to issue major decisions in the coming weeks, including ones on a criminal case against former President Donald J. Trump, abortion, gun rights and social media, members of its conservative majority have fanned out across the nation to offer varied takes on their work.

At a judicial conference on Friday in Alabama, Justice Clarence Thomas spoke bitterly about being subjected to what he called “the nastiness and the lies.” The justice has been criticized for receiving lavish gifts and for failing to recuse himself from cases arising from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol despite his wife’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

That same day, at a judicial conference in Texas, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh struck a sunnier tone, speaking of his dedication to neutral principles and the court’s efforts to find consensus.

Those appearances were wide-ranging public conversations, while Justice Alito’s speech was brief and general. But it was laced with the justice’s characteristic pessimism.

“It’s rough out there,” he said. “And, in fact, I think it is rougher out there right now than it has been for quite some time.”

He received an extended standing ovation when a speaker introducing him noted that he had written the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the 2022 decision that overruled Roe v. Wade and eliminated the constitutional right to abortion it had established.

In his speech, Justice Alito said that respect for precedent, in law and life, was important.

“If you read almost any opinion issued by a court in this country, you will see that the text is full of citations to past court decisions,” he said. “Those decisions, which we call precedents, are given great respect. They are not written in stone. Sometimes they must be changed, but they are not to be lightly discarded.”



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