Alexander Meiklejohn

Alexander Meiklejohn (/ˈmɪkəlˌɒn/; 3 February 1872 – 17 December 1964) was a philosopher, university administrator, educational reformer, and free-speech advocate. He served as dean of Brown University and president of Amherst College.

Life and career

Meiklejohn was born in Newbold Street, Rochdale, Lancashire, England of Scottish descent, being the youngest of eight sons. When he was eight, the family moved to the United States, settling in Rhode Island. Family members pooled their money to send him to school. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at Brown, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and completed his doctorate in philosophy at Cornell in 1897. At Brown he was a member of Theta Delta Chi.

In the same year, he began teaching at Brown. In 1901 he became dean of the school, a position he held for twelve years. The first-year advising program at Brown now bears his name. From 1913 to 1923 he was president of Amherst College. After being asked to resign from that position, he proposed to open a new, experimental liberal arts college. He was unable to develop adequate funding for creating an entirely new school, but he was invited by Glenn Frank, new president of the University of Wisconsin, to create the Experimental College there, which ran from 1927 to 1932. He then moved to Berkeley, California and founded the School of Social Studies in San Francisco, an adult education program focusing on "great books" and American democracy. His books span the period from 1920 to 1960. He died in Berkeley, California in 1964.

On free speech

Meiklejohn is known as an advocate of First Amendment freedoms and was a member of the National Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).[1] Meiklejohn is one of the most notable proponents of the link between freedom of speech and democracy. He argues that the concept of democracy is that of self-government by the people. For such a system to work an informed electorate is necessary. To be appropriately knowledgeable, there must be no constraints on the free flow of information and ideas. According to Meiklejohn, democracy will not be true to its essential ideal if those in power are able to manipulate the electorate by withholding information and stifling criticism. Meiklejohn acknowledges that the desire to manipulate opinion can stem from the motive of seeking to benefit society. However, he argues, choosing manipulation negates, in its means, the democratic ideal.[2] Eric Barendt has called the defence of free speech on the grounds of democracy "probably the most attractive and certainly the most fashionable free speech theory in modern Western democracies".[3]

Although Meiklejohn died in 1964 his ideas are still informing the ongoing discussion about how the United States "experiment" in democracy is best understood. This is happening in a very pointed way in early-21st-century attempts to regulate the ways in which campaigns for political office are financed, and reactions to such attempts by the Supreme Court of the United States. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, in particular, has adopted Meiklejohn's interpretation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, 528 US 377 (2000), at 401, Justice Breyer (joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) wrote a concurring opinion in support of such regulation. In response to protestations that such laws violate citizen's rights to free speech, Breyer held that there were free spech arguments on both sides of the issue. He said that properly framed regulations limiting monetary contributions could substantially expand the opportunity for freedom of expression rather than limit it. He pointed out that the integrity of the electoral process needs to be maintained since that is the means by which a free society translates political advocacy into concrete political action, and that regulating the financing of political campaigns is integral to that advocacy. In doing so Breyer cited Meiklejohn's interpretation of the First Amendment which gives emphasis to public need rather than individual prerogative.

Arguably at least, the issues in cases like this go to the heart of any discussion about what United States democracy is or ought to be, because such discussions will involve not only the way money is related to speech and the nature of partisan political debate, but also the matter of government regulations and how much attention should be given to collective needs as compared with individual ones – all of which were central to Meiklejohn's concern about the very meaning of freedom.[4]

Legacy and recognition

In 1945 he was a US delegate to the founding meeting of UNESCO in London. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) established the Alexander Meiklejohn Freedom Award to honour his work. He received the Rosenberger Medal in 1959. Meiklejohn was selected by John F. Kennedy to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was presented by Lyndon B. Johnson shortly after Kennedy's death.

The Meiklejohn Advising Program is Brown University's advising program for incoming first-year students. Meiklejohn Advisors (known as Meiklejohns for short) are student advisors who are paired with each first-year, along with a faculty advisor, to provide academic advice and help the transition to college.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison's Meiklejohn House (home to the Integrated Liberal Studies program) continues to espouse the ideals of Meiklejohn's experimental college by engaging students in interdisciplinary liberal education.

Meiklejohn Hall at the California State University, East Bay houses many of the school's liberal arts programs.[5]


  • The Liberal College, 1920
  • Freedom and the College, 1923
  • The Experimental College, 1932 (full text online)
  • What Does America Mean?, 1935
  • Education Between Two Worlds, 1942
  • Free Speech and Its Relation to Self-Government, 1948 (full text online)
  • Political Freedom: the Constitutional Powers of the People, 1960

See also


  1. Judy Kutulas (2006), The American Civil Liberties Union and the Making of Modern Liberalism, 1930–1960, p. 99.
  2. Marlin, pp. 226–227.
  3. Marlin, p. 226.
  4. See generally Perry.
  5. Keely Wong, CSU East Bay’s Lost History of Alexander Meiklejohn, May 2, 2013


  • Cynthia Stokes Brown, Alexander Meiklejohn: Teacher of Freedom, MCLI, 1981.
  • Ronald K.L. Collins & Sam Chalatin, We Must Not Be Afraid to Be Free: Stories of Free Expression in America (Oxford U. Press, 2011), pp. 39–58.
  • Randal Marlin, Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion Broadview Press, 2002. ISBN 978-1-55111-376-0.
  • Eugene H. Perry, A Socrates for all Seasons: Alexander Meiklejohn and Deliberative Democracy (Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse Press, 2011).
Academic offices
Preceded by
George Harris
President of Amherst College
Succeeded by
George Daniel Olds
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