“We cannot have a civil society if it’s filled with people, led by people, who refuse to allow discussion of views counter to their own,” remarked Dr. Scott Atlas as graduating students at the New College of Florida tried to shout down his speech at their commencement ceremony. The Review has obtained the text of Dr. Atlas' full speech, included below.
On May 19, Dr. Atlas, a Senior Fellow in health policy at the Hoover Institution and former Chief of Neuroradiology and Professor at Stanford's School of Medicine, who served as one of President Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force advisors, delivered the New College of Florida’s 2023 commencement speech. His speech marks the beginning of a new era for the school that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is transforming to reflect a new model for classical education.
His message encouraged students to be courageous leaders who stand up for truth. He recounted his own story in the White House on the Coronavirus Task Force, sharing his experience standing for truth and freedom in the midst of widespread backlash and intolerance to ideas contrary to the bureaucracy’s favored narrative. Even at Stanford, Dr. Atlas’ colleagues condemned his work and attempted to censor him.
But as Dr. Atlas spoke at the New College to discuss the need for the free exchange of ideas, using his own story and example to encourage students to stand up for truth, students jeered at his speech, shouting “Wrap it up!” While students drowned his words, Dr. Atlas closed his speech saying:
“We desperately need leadership that unites, not divides; leaders with a moral compass, who know right from wrong, who believe in strong family values; leaders who are not afraid to defend our precious freedoms – America’s hard-earned freedoms that uniquely provide opportunity sought by millions the world over; leaders with integrity—or this country, as an ethical society, as a virtuous society, as a free and diverse society, is in serious trouble."
Free speech tensions on college campuses have been high. Just this year, students at Stanford Law School shouted down Judge Kyle Duncan. At the San Francisco State University, students assaulted activist Riley Gaines, and other students across the entire country refuse to listen to one another’s ideas, specifically targeting conservative speech. Clearly, under its old leadership, the New College of Florida also had failed to educate its students on some of the most basic and important principles of a free society. But no longer will that be the case.
The small Florida college is now heading into a new era, marked by a mission to restore classical education when it has almost vanished in the US. In response to the shouting, Dr. Atlas told the Review that “The most disgraceful failure of America's university professors is as role models. They taught the worst possible behavior to our children—that suffocating ideas contrary to your views by character assassination or any means necessary, rather than winning based on evidence and open debate, is acceptable.”
In the beginning of the year, Governor Ron DeSantis appointed several new trustees to the New College of Florida, which included Manhattan Institute fellow Chris Rufo and several others. The sudden appointments gave the newly-appointed college leadership the power to reform the school, reshaping it into a model for a classical liberal arts college. The board began by firing the college’s current president, Patricia Okker, and replacing her with Richard Corcoran.
Dr. Atlas ended his speech with a quote from G.K. Chesterton: “Right is right, even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong about it.” In order to successfully restore the New College of Florida, college leadership, professors, and students must be willing to stand for what is right and what is true. Dr. Atlas is a model of exactly what that looks like.
You can read the entirety of Dr. Scott Atlas’ speech at the New College of Florida below.
Dr. Scott Atlas’ Full Commencement Speech at the New College of Florida
Good evening, Novos! And thank you for that introduction.
To President Corcoran, the Board of Trustees, New College faculty and staff, families and friends, the Class of 2023 – thank you all for this great honor of joining you tonight.
And most importantly – huge congratulations to the Class of 2023! It is truly a great occasion.
You are a very special group for many reasons – especially because you endured the craziness of the COVID pandemic and its management – not what you signed up for, no doubt. You should be very proud of persevering, of getting through this truly tragic time in our nation.
What excites me the most about New College is its stated commitment to (QUOTE) “free speech and civil discourse” (UNQUOTE). This is the most urgently needed change in America today – restoring both civil discourse and the free exchange of ideas.
The college campus is supposed to be America’s center for the free exchange of ideas, essential to finding truth and fundamental to any free society. College is here to challenge you – not to protect you from ideas you may not like. It is crucial for students to hear ideas from many sources, especially ideas they may not agree with. That is a key part of learning how to think critically, in fact, it’s literally impossible to learn critical thinking without hearing differing views – and critical thinking is the most important lesson to learn in college.
You are about to begin a very different life – one that is far less sheltered than what a college campus provides. In most ways, a life after college is one with far more freedom and far more choices. And there is no country with greater freedom, with more choices, with broader opportunities for all, than the United States.
But with freedom comes responsibility, and let’s be clear, our country needs your help.
I was asked to help our country during the biggest health crisis in a century.
As a health policy scholar for more than 15 years, and a medical scientist and physician for more than 30 years, I was called by the White House in July 2020 and asked “would you come speak to the President?” – I answered, “of course” – I remembered the words of my friend and Hoover colleague General Jim Mattis, who told me the day he was headed to Washington as President Trump’s Secretary of Defense – “Scott, when the President of the United States asks me to serve, the answer is – Yes, Sir, period.”
After a day of meetings in the White House, I was asked by Jared Kushner to help advise the President.
I replied – “ok, but this is what you’re getting. I will never agree with something just because someone tells me to, no matter who that is. I will not sign onto any group statement that I disagree with. And I will not change what I believe just because someone else wants me to – no matter who that is”
And Jared Kushner replied, “that’s exactly why we want you” – and I was relieved, very happy to hear that.
But then he warned “I am concerned they’re going to try to destroy you once it’s public”
I was shocked - first because he actually cared – and then, because that didn’t sound so great.
So, I said, “how about if I go back to California and advise from there?”
And I tried that – but it doesn’t work when decisions are made in real-time, while the President and the public were being fed wrong, severely harmful policies pushed by career bureaucrats who lacked knowledge and critical thinking.
My concern, my work, my entire motivation were focused on one and only one thing: to stop the death and destruction from the pandemic and its management - both the virus harms and the impact on the public health of the policies imposed. That is the importance of health policy experts – my field, my lane – with a broader scope of expertise than that of virologists or epidemiologists, and certainly than any career government bureaucrat.
My position was never political, it was solely to help the American people – you may wonder why my political party voting registration, a matter of public record, is never mentioned in the press – think about that. Maybe it doesn’t fit their narrative?
On reflection - It is a great blessing to have been given the opportunity – the rare opportunity – to help my country, my fellow citizens, in a time of crisis. Most people never get that chance - to try to do so much good, for so many.
And to you – you graduates who might find yourselves in this situation one day, and some undoubtedly will - that no matter how difficult it may seem to speak the truth, even against a tidal wave of hostility, character assassination in national and international media, death threats requiring 24/7 police security surrounding my home for weeks, and back-stabbing even from my own employer … it was never, never even a remote consideration to give up, to stop speaking out.
Because first, people were dying – directly from the Birx-Fauci lockdowns that were contrary to the data, to fundamental biology, and to simple logic – that had to be called out, I knew the data, and I had to try to change things.
Second, it became apparent that so many people desperately wanted to hear the facts, spoken logically, to clarify the truth – I received hundreds of emails per day, thousands of emotional emails from everyday working people, seniors, doctors and scientists, teachers, priests praying for me, fathers and mothers, whose husbands and daughters had committed suicide from the isolation and lockdowns - who implored me, literally begged me, to keep it up because they were afraid and afraid to speak up. I could never let them down. The press never understood the motivation – my responsibility to my fellow Americans completely dwarfed the media’s slurs and criticisms.
And third – I knew I had the backing of the strongest, truest, most ethical person I have ever known – my wife, who I met in college more than 40 years ago! Look around you – your future spouse may be sitting nearby!
Let’s briefly first consider some facts.
We must acknowledge that the pandemic has been a great tragedy, there can be no doubt about that. But it has also exposed profound issues in America that now threaten the very principles of freedom that we Americans often take for granted.
Under two administrations – Trump and Biden – the United States management of the pandemic was a failure, in deaths per million among the worst compared to all our peer nations - a straight line of increase in deaths per day, from March 1, 2020 through April 2022 – two full years, no change in the slope of that line even after the vaccine becoming available on December 16, 2020.
Any judgment of the US response lies at the hands of Drs. Birx, Fauci, the CDC, and the university experts who convinced officials to implement their lockdown strategy. Lockdowners got what they wanted, their policies were implemented throughout the nation, in almost every single state, and their policies failed – failed to stop the death, failed to stop the infection from spreading, and in addition inflicted massive health damages, death, and destruction, particularly on low-income families and on our children.
This was the biggest, the most tragic, and the most unethical breakdown of public health leadership in modern history.
America’s media is finally acknowledging facts that refute the original reasons behind lockdowns and school closures. It shouldn’t be partisan. Both the Trump and Biden administrations rejected the science – Henderson’s 2006 classic review – 15 years earlier - clearly stated lockdowns were not effective, and lockdowns were extremely harmful. Both administrations rejected the alternative, targeted protection - the safer, scientifically valid, and standard approach that was advised in national media by John Ioannidis, by David Katz, and by me – all 3 of us independently in March 2020 and then repeatedly for months - that we should employ targeted, increased protection of the elderly and the high-risk – because the lockdowns were not protecting the elderly - and reopen schools and businesses, to stop destroying children and the poor. That data was not “learned” later in 2020, or in 2021 or 2022 - it was all known in spring of 2020.
My advice was rejected - with rare exceptions, like here in Florida. And you here in Florida were the lucky ones – open schools, no lockdowns since late summer 2020, and living normally for 2 ½ years – Florida avoided the lockdown harms AND yes, even with its elderly, hi-risk population, after 2 full years had better “age-adjusted COVID deaths” than 60% of states, and lower “excess death increase” than my own, much younger state of California- that’s fact, you need to learn to disregard the fabrications of untruthful media and politicians.
Why did Americans accept such draconian, unprecedented, illogical lockdowns?
Two lies were told to convince and frighten the public:
- if you are against lockdowns, you are choosing the economy over lives (That was contrary to decades of economic data showing severe economic downturns literally kill people – it was “lives vs lives”); and
- if you are against lockdowns, you are for “letting it rip” (That was an outright lie. No one ever suggested “let it rip” – it was never even mentioned in any White House meeting I ever attended, I never advised that, I never heard it discussed …that is not targeted protection)
That’s called propaganda – distributed through a dishonest media, reminiscent of the most heinous regimes in modern history, to demonize opposing groups as highly dangerous.
We must live in a society where facts matter – and here’s the data:
- Bjronskov - March 2021: “Comparing weekly mortality in 24 European countries … more severe lockdown policies have not been associated with lower mortality.” The lockdowns did not reduce deaths.
- Bendavid Stanford - January 2021: “We do not find significant benefits on case growth” - The lockdowns did not prevent the spread of the infection.
- Agrawal RAND Institute and USC - June 2021: Lockdown policies in 43 countries and across US states led to more excess deaths.
- Herby, Johns Hopkins - January 2022: “Lockdowns in Europe and the United States only reduced COVID-19 mortality by 0.2% on average - and should be rejected as a pandemic policy instrument.”
- Kerpen, Moore, and Mulligan’s University of Chicago - February 2023: Florida and South Dakota, states that opened early, were among the states with the best performance on death, education, and employment; the worst performing states were those with the most stringent lockdowns, specifically Illinois (46th), California (47th), New Mexico (48th), New York (49th), Washington DC (50th) and New Jersey (51st).
Lockdowners got their policies implemented, and their policies failed. That’s fact, that’s the data.
But those same people now run from accountability - even worse, using logic rivalling Kafka and the Mad Hatter – they blame those who opposed the lockdowns and mandates for the failure of the lockdowns and mandates that were widely implemented.
Truth may be slowly prevailing, but being proven right is not sufficient.
We have witnessed something more fundamental than a pandemic mis-management.
We have witnessed a shocking ethical breakdown, and a failure of leadership in our country, one that has created a crisis of trust in public health and institutions that we need as a democratic and diverse society.
And now we are faced with a tremendous challenge as a nation – how to restore that trust and the values required of any free and ethical society.
Do we have a problem in ethical leadership in America?
First, consider America’s school lockdown policy.
Almost all of western Europe recognized the 2020 data proving the miniscule risk to healthy children for serious illness, so they opened schools for 2020-21, even during otherwise stringent lockdowns; yet, most of America’s governors closed in-person schools for the school year.
What happened during America’s school closures?
- Hundreds of thousands of child abuse cases went unreported, since schools are the number one agency reporting that abuse.
- Mental health disorders in teenagers and college-aged children skyrocketed;
- Self-harm by teenagers doubled to tripled versus 2019;
- Overdoses and substance use disorders in teenagers increased by 40% to 120%.
- Massive learning losses directly from the shutdowns: the NAEP 2022 Report Card reported the largest score drops in math since the first assessments more than 30 years ago.
As highlighted in UNICEF’s “2022 Update” – those harms and learning losses “disproportionally affected students from disadvantaged backgrounds” and “are concentrated among poor students.”
The Birx-Fauci lockdowns were a luxury of the rich, sparing the affluent, while shifting the burden to the working class, minorities, and the poor.
I thought we were a society that cared about the poor and the low-income families, one that prioritized our children?
And let’s compare America’s COVID vaccines in children to our peer nations.
- UK vaccine advisory committee, September 2021: “The margin of benefit … is too small to support universal vaccination of otherwise healthy (teenagers)...”
- Finland Ministry of Health, June 2021: “People under 16 who are not in a (high) risk group will not be vaccinated in Finland ...”
- Norway Institute of Public Health, 2020/2022: “For children who are offered the coronavirus vaccine … Vaccination is voluntary.”
- Denmark Health Authority, 2022: “it will no longer be possible for children and young people under the age of 18 to get the … vaccine”
- the US? October 26, 2021 “we’re never going to learn about how safe this vaccine is unless we start giving it. That’s just the way it goes.” Eric Rubin, MD, Editor-in-Chief, NEJM, FDA Advisory committee on pediatric vaccines
Nelson Mandela said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
Across the United States, almost all colleges and universities required testing, vaccination, and boosters in healthy asymptomatic young people, and some still do even now, in 2023. Yet, back in October, 2020, even before any vaccine, the CDC posted on its website for schools: “It is unethical and illegal to test someone who does not want to be tested...”
That CDC posting has been removed and cannot be found. Why?
Meanwhile, many of our so-called elite medical centers – Duke, Hopkins, Stanford, - engaged in a clinical trial sponsored by money from Pfizer, the vaccine maker injecting healthy infants and toddlers with that experimental drug, for a disease they have no significant risk from.
Is that now America’s standard for medical ethics?
And even if it were true that the vaccines prevent the spread of the infection – what kind of society uses its children as human shields for adults? I am a father. I am a shield for my children, they are not to be used as shields for me.
Beyond the death and destruction, we have set up a public health disaster in our younger generation – your generation:
- during the lockdown more than half of college-aged kids had an unwanted weight gain that averaged 28 pounds - that's an obesity epidemic;
- and we have taught our very young children that they are a disease vector – they are a danger to everyone, and everyone is a danger to them.
Mackay said “of all the offspring of time, error is the most ancient and is so old and familiar an acquaintance that truth, when discovered, comes upon most of us like an intruder and meets the Intruder’s welcome”
What was the response to hearing truth – especially on our university campuses, the centers for the free exchange of ideas?
Censorship, Intimidation, Character Assassination, and Censure
And let’s understand clearly, when you censor science and health policy, it's not simply an abstract evil, a less-than-ideal environment for diversity of views and creative thought. People die - and people died from the censorship of correct science policy.
As a health policy scholar for over 15 years and as a professor at top universities for 30 years, I fear for our students and our country. Without permitting, indeed encouraging, open debate, we might never solve any future crisis.
Let’s be clear – although well-intended, statements on “Academic Freedom” are of little value– even Stanford’s has a statement, celebrating its 50th anniversary next year. That’s the stuff of satire…
But it is not only the matter of academic freedom that needs comment.
Many faculty members of our acclaimed universities are now dangerously intolerant of opinions contrary to their favored narrative.
And some employed toxic smears and organized rebukes against those who disagreed with what was implemented and who dared to help the country – our country, their country - under a president they happen to despise … apparently, the ultimate transgression.
But defamatory attacks, character assassination, are not acceptable in civilized society, let alone in our great universities.
Worse than a violation of ethical behavior among colleagues, it does not meet my standard of simple human decency.
If academic leaders fail to renounce such shameful conduct, many more experts with a reputation to lose will be unwilling to serve their country in contentious times. As educators - as parents - as citizens, that would be the worst possible legacy to leave to our children, the next generation of stewards of this country.
Instead, though, many call for simply “forgiving and forgetting” the unconscionable decisions to close schools and implement reckless lockdowns.
No. That must not be allowed –
Because Truth matters in an ethical society – the public needs to know the truth, after all they have been through.
And not if we are to succeed in the next pandemic, the next inevitable crisis.
And not if we want to restore trust – that requires, as a start, demanding the admission of failure & a public apology by lockdown advocates, to add accountability to those in power, so they never impose these policies again – even though we cannot expect any apology, because apology requires integrity.
What can we as Americans do now? What can YOU do, as New College graduates?
First – we all, each one of us, now has the burden of being critical thinkers to make the best decisions for ourselves and our families. The era of accepting what so-called experts say, simply based on their titles alone, is over. Learn the facts, use critical thinking, and then form the opinion – that’s the order, not the reverse.
Second – we have a disastrous void in courage in our society today.
To quote CS Lewis, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”
If our democracy, with its defining freedoms, is to survive, we need good people, individuals with integrity, and there are many, to rise up – meaning speak up, as we are allowed, as we are expected to do in free societies - or it has no chance.
Third – we have a shocking deficit of moral and virtuous leadership in America.
We need you – as Rising Leaders – to engage in public service for your community, for your country.
We keep electing leaders – including several presidents in a row – who simply do not understand that after they are elected, they become leaders for everyone – even for those who did not vote for them.
We need you, your generation, to reinstate the moral backbone, the ethical compass – and the basic civility that is disappearing from America.
We cannot have a civil society if it’s filled with people, led by people, who refuse to allow discussion of views counter to their own. We desperately need leadership that unites, not divides; leaders with a moral compass, who know right from wrong, who believe in strong family values; leaders who are not afraid to defend our precious freedoms—America’s hard-earned freedoms that uniquely provide opportunity sought by millions the world over; leaders with integrity—or this country, as an ethical society, as a virtuous society, as a free and diverse society, is in serious trouble.
Finally—we must never forget what GK Chesterton said—
“Right is right, even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong about it”
Thank you. God bless you all, and may God Bless our country, the world’s beacon of freedom, the United States of America!