Justice Alito to Franciscan Graduates: ‘Go Out Boldly and Change the World’

Alito stressed the importance of knowing one’s values.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito speaks to graduates at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, on May 11, 2024.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito speaks to graduates at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, on May 11, 2024. (photo: Franciscan University)

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito challenged graduates at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, on Saturday to embrace vital life lessons about courage and personal values that he said can be found in the U.S. Constitution.

“The framers foresaw that troublous times would arise when rulers and people would become restive and the principles of constitutional liberty would be in peril unless established by irreparable law,” Alito said at the May 11 commencement.

“The Constitution of the United States applies to all classes of men at all times and under all circumstances,” he emphasized. “This same fundamental idea that there are certain principles that we cannot compromise without paying a fearsome price applies to our personal lives.” 

Speaking on campus at Finnegan Field, Alito urged the 896 graduating seniors — the largest graduating class at Franciscan in the private Catholic school’s 78-year history — to “go out boldly and change the world.” 

Alito stressed the importance of knowing one’s values.

“We can make the effort to keep in mind what is fundamental and what is permanent in our lives … that is absolutely critical,” he said.

“There are certain moral principles that are true and immutable. These principles of right and wrong are not relative or circumstantial. They are not of our making, and it is not within our power to change them even though at times we might find that convenient.”

Alito — a stalwart conservative of the U.S. Supreme Court known for authoring the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which struck down Roe v. Wade — spoke at length about the law in his address, jokingly saying: “If you invite a lawyer to give a graduation speech you’re going to hear about the law.”

He pointed to the Constitution as more than a document, seeing it as a pure expression of the energy and spirit of the nation. 

“Our Constitution has survived and flourished because it was designed to accommodate change. We are a nation of change. When Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States in the 1840s he marveled at the restlessness of Americans. And since Tocqueville’s day, Americans have never stopped racing towards the future,” he said.

Alito tasked the graduating class with taking away two specific lessons from what the Constitution teaches every American. 

“The first,” he said, “is respect for reason and civil discourse. Our legal system is built on the premise that it is possible for fair and open-minded people to solve their problems by reasoning together by a process of rational and respectful argumentation. I hope you will take that approach in your lives.”

The second lesson, he continued, is to pay deference to tradition and past wisdom. Specifically, Alito told students that their pasts can help ground them as they move through life and that friends who truly know the real you prevent you from giving way to the vices of pride and arrogance.

Alito took inspiration for his speech from a few different sources including comedian Rodney Dangerfield and St. John Henry Newman. Quoting Dangerfield from the movie “Back to School,” Alito bluntly told students: “It’s rough out there,” alluding to the adversity they will face as they move forward through life.

Citing St. John Henry Newman, the 19th-century English churchman who wrote and lectured extensively on the need for universities to provide “a comprehensive view of truth in all its branches,” Alito praised Franciscan as one of the “very few colleges” today that “live up to that ideal.”