Review: Speak Freely

Speak Freely

Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, Keith E. Whittington. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Summary: A case for the vigorous defense of free speech as essential to fulfilling the mission of the university in the face of both institutional and outside attempts to suppress objectionable speech.

Free speech on college campuses is perhaps under as great
a threat today as it has been in quite some time. We are not,
of course, on the verge of returning to the rigid conformity of
a century ago, but we are in danger of giving up on the hard won
freedoms of critical inquiry that have been wrested from
figures of authority over the course of a century.

So contends Keith E. Whittington in this rallying cry to defend free speech on university campuses. Whittington discusses the challenges to free speech arising from free-floating forms of calls for “trigger warnings and safe spaces,” the cries to ban “hate speech” from public discourse, protests whose purpose is not dissenting from the speech of others but obstructing it, restraints or bans on student groups and outside speakers advocating objectionable ideas, and attacks on the academic and speech freedom of faculty.

His fundamental contention is that freedom of speech is essential to the mission of the university, which he defines as “producing and disseminating knowledge.” Freedom of inquiry, rigorous discourse, disagreement and persuasion are all aspects of this process, and the protections of freedom of speech are essential for universities to flourish in this mission. A common element to both the mission of the university and a rigorous defense of free speech is a commitment to truth-seeking.

Having stated this contention, he surveys the development of a tradition of free speech over the last several centuries, both in its political expression tracing back to Jefferson and the refusal to permit authorities to define and censor “bad” speech and the philosophical tradition of John Stuart Mill upholding freedom of thought and conscience. He then considers the challenges to this freedom of speech, already noted above, including a number of recent instances in the last decade, notably the efforts to suppress Charles Murray from speaking at Middlebury College, and the injury to the faculty moderator that ensued. He also calls attention to the banning of religious groups who do not permit students to lead who do not share their beliefs, thus excluding the views of these groups from the public square.

In this last instance, I would have liked to seem a stronger recognition of how protecting the freedom of people with a particular viewpoint to associate is essential to sustaining their freedom to advocate that viewpoint, whether in line or at variance with the university orthodoxy. I would have liked a clearer connection to be drawn between the institutional forms of suppression of free speech that occur in universities, and efforts by students or outside groups to do the same, to which those same university leaders often object. In many instances, students are using the means at their disposal to restrict certain forms of speech, mirroring the more “refined” ways institutions suppress objectionable speech through policies, procedures, and pressures. Students are often simply doing what they have been taught.

Nevertheless, the author’s contention is crucial that all forms of speech, short of speech that is directly threatening harm or incites violence, ought to be protected, and channeled toward real deliberation and persuasion. I saw an instance of this recently where a university president, under pressure to dis-invite a speaker who made some impolitic statements, refused to do so and invited students to engage the speaker with their questions about his statement, and also to set up other university-supported discussions countering the speaker’s viewpoint. The president used this instance as a “teachable moment” of what it meant to live up to the school’s “Code of Love and Honor” that includes these affirmations:

I respect…
the dignity, rights, and property of others and their right to hold and express disparate beliefs.

I defend…
the freedom of inquiry that is the heart of learning.

This, for me was an example of the personal and institutional backbone necessary to sustain the speech freedom Whittington, I think rightly, believes vital to the mission of our colleges and universities. Whittington notes that this may be costly, when controversial speakers make appearances. Equally, his book seems to me to be a cry for colleges and universities to examine their own culture, and how institutional efforts to censor objectionable or unpopular points of view undermine the very mission of higher education. If colleges and universities indeed believe that inquiry, rigorous discourse, persuasion through logical and reasoned discourse, and appeals to evidence are the stuff of truth-seeking, not just in higher education, but in a liberal democracy; then they should not only defend those who seek to “speak freely” but eschew any efforts to substitute institutional power plays for the deliberative truth-seeking that is supposedly at the heart of its mission.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One thought on “Review: Speak Freely

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: June 2018 | Bob on Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.