Humanities in Class: Webinar Series

Whistleblowers: Renewing and Sustaining Democracy in America since 1778

Lead Scholar: Allison Stanger (Leng Professor of International Politics and Economics, Middlebury College)

September 17, 2020

Revealing the misconduct of the powerful is always dangerous. By challenging and exposing corruption, whistleblowers perform a vital public service—yet, historically, they have suffered for it. This seminar will explore the origins and history of whistleblowing in America, tracing the critical role it has played in keeping elites honest and amplifying the voice of the people. From corrupt Revolutionary War commodore Esek Hopkins (whose dismissal led to the first whistleblower protection law in 1778) to Edward Snowden to the collapse of a longstanding tradition of bipartisan support for whistleblowers under Donald Trump, the status of whistleblower protections can be a way to assess the well-being of American democracy. We will examine the tension between rights-based constitutional democracy, the First Amendment, and the demands of national security in the internet age, where whistleblowers who provide the public with important information have been seen by both Democrats and Republicans as an insider threat. An important but unrecognized cousin of civil disobedience, the act of whistleblowing continues to challenge Americans to close the gap between our professed ideals and practices. The connections between whistleblower protection, freedom of expression, and the debilitating consequences that fear and self-censorship can have in both our classrooms and in democratic public life will also be explored.

Subjects: History; Political Science; Whistleblowers; Democracy; Political History; American History