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.

First Freedoms


“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution)

These are some of the words that make me most proud to be an American. Written at the end of the eighteenth century, they enunciate the crucial freedoms that recognize human dignity and provide the space for a diverse populace to live together in a democratic republic.

Recently I’ve been reading John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism and have been impressed again what a singular thing are the five freedoms within the First Amendment. While there has been much legal contention about these freedoms, (and I’m not a constitutional, nor any kind of lawyer, so I won’t go there) I continue to believe that it is critical that every American understand these freedoms, and fight for them, even when they are exercised by those with whom we disagree.

The freedoms are:

  1. Freedom of religion, which includes the refusal of government to privilege any religion by its support, and the free exercise of any religion, which includes not only freedom to worship but freedom to proclaim one’s faith publicly as a private citizen. This includes all religions and protects equally the conscience of those who adhere to no religion.
  2. Freedom of speech. This freedom generally allows Americans to say what they think, particular in agreement or disagreement with their government but also on a host of other issues. It means Americans may be critical of duly elected government without fear of arrest or other harm (otherwise, most or all of our late night talk show hosts would be in jail). It does not mean we can give false testimony in court, defame another person’s character without proof, threaten others with bodily harm or incite lawlessness.
  3. Freedom of the press. Tyrannical governments have always sought to shut down or control the press. A free press allows people to express themselves through publication (even as I am doing right now) without fear of government sanction, even if their expression challenges government actions. As a college student, I watched a couple determined reporters at the Washington Post pursue a story that led to the resignation of a U.S. President to avoid impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors against the United States. While our press freedoms protect even very biased media reporting, I believe the press undermines its ability to keep government honest when it is itself not fair and impartial.
  4. Freedom of peaceable assembly. The first amendment protects the right of people to gather and associate for all kinds of reasons with those with whom they wish to assemble. Historically, this has protected women’s colleges, fraternal societies, and much more. It allows groups to define their membership. Some have challenged this when such definitions appear discriminatory. Yet at very least, it seems that to foster robust and diverse associations, these should be able to organize around the qualities that distinguish them, around their distinctive mission and message.
  5. Freedom of petition. This is the basis on which everything from a letter to a congress person to a peaceful protest march is based. It includes the freedom to circulate petitions to change laws. In 2010, I was part of a petition movement to see tougher human trafficking laws implemented within both my state and the U.S.–laws that treated the trafficked as victims and went after perpetrators more rigorously. It was exciting to see laws changed both in my state and nationally as a result. Freedom of petition doesn’t always mean we get our way, or do so as quickly as we would wish.

If one surveys the nations of the world, you will see instances of countries that deteriorate into anarchy or tyranny. It has happened in highly civilized countries. It can happen here. Under the grace of God, I believe the exercise and protection of these freedoms (and often they are protected by their vigorous exercise) are the best way to avoid “the apocalypse” in our own nation.

It also seems that we must fight for these freedoms, even for those with whom we deeply disagree. As a college student, I found myself in the unusual position of advocating for the recognition by our university of an LGBT group that wished to form a student organization (this was in the 1970’s). Some of my Christian friends disagreed. For me it was a simple question of peaceable assembly and that these students should enjoy the same right as we did. They were students. They equally paid tuition and fees. And they were human beings with dignity.

It seems that we are in a time where we may need to do this quite a bit. We may both need to be outspoken in defense of our deepest convictions, and defend the rights of those who differ deeply with us. This is hard, but I fear that the alternative is downright scary, for it would seem to involve the suppression of the ideas, or even, as it has come to be in some places, the lives of those with whom we deeply differ. American greatness is ultimately not the contest of power and who are the winners and losers but rather the quest to live up to the ideals of our first freedoms and to include all our people in them. It is messy and conflictual, back and forth, but I’ll take that any day to tyranny or anarchy.

The Speech of Freedom

voltaireI have been observing some of the latest discussions about safe speech and free speech. I get the concerns about micro-aggressions. If you are part of an ethnic minority, for example, you may hear comments that reveal stereotypes that are offensive. The comment may not always be deliberately offensive, which reveals how much such stereotypes are part of the fabric of our society.

Yet it is also troubling that speech is often suppressed, or safe zones are declared. Many of us remembered fighting for free speech on campus,  We would even say,”I might not like what you are saying, but I will defend your right to say it.” It is concerning that in universities where it once was thought that the best answer for a bad argument was a better argument, we now seem to think the best answer for an argument we don’t like is to suppress it–disinvite the speaker, get the administrator or faculty to resign, shout down the opposition.

What I want to explore is an understanding of responsible free speech. Short of slander and liable, our free speech protections have been sweeping, and on the whole, the best protection our democracy has against tyranny. We protect a lot of irresponsible speech–speech that hurts, belittles, polarizes, and stirs hatreds. Some of the efforts toward “safe speech” are intended to address these irresponsible excesses. I actually think that efforts that bar such speech are misbegotten at best and tyrannous at worst. I’d like to propose something different.

I would propose that the ethic that follows from believing in free speech is a commitment to the speech of freedom. What do I mean by that? It is that we practice a kind of golden rule in our speaking. I ask, does my speech afford the dignity, and seek the freedom and flourishing of those I am speaking about or with, particularly those with whom I disagree? Do I want for them what I want for me?

Notice that this is not a proposal that suppresses disagreement or even vigorous argument. Rather, I would suggest that it creates the necessary foundation for such argument. I always find myself more willing to engage with, and more hopeful of a meeting of the minds with those who assume the best about me and want the best for me even if they disagree with my way of thinking.

I’ve often mentioned  Martin Luther King, Jr. in these columns. Though hardly perfect, I believe he practiced the speech of freedom. He contended for justice for his people, but said this could not be done with hatred in one’s heart. The aim was not an isolated safe space, but a “beloved community” that had room for the transgressors, as well as the aggrieved.

I think this kind of speech reveals the deep wellsprings of who we are. I would suggest that the test of our hearts is do we love the neighbor with whom we most deeply disagree? This kind of speech calls out what is noblest in us, the “better angels of our nature.”

I do not think we can wait until others practice the speech of freedom to begin to practice this in our lives. And I wonder, in our deeply divided society, if we can afford to wait? Do we want to settle for safe speech, or speech that is free at the expense of others, when we can forge a bond across our deepest differences in pursuing the speech of freedom?