Keith E. Whittington


On his book Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech

Cover Interview of January 02, 2019

In a nutshell

Speak Freely provides a succinct, accessible explanation of the principles of free speech and their relationship to the workings of a modern university. In contrast to wide-spread polemics about the free speech crisis on campus, this book tries to offer a fair-minded guide through the current controversies. It explains why those who are critical of what they see happening on college campuses should not give up hope on the promise of universities, and it seeks to persuade those who are part of a campus community, why they should be committed to liberal tolerance and critical inquiry.

The book makes the case for why universities are valuable and why freedom of thought and freedom of inquiry on campus are essential to sustaining the value of universities. It argues that we should expect and want universities to be sites of robust debate about controversial ideas. It contends that fulfilling the truth-seeking mission of a university necessitates nurturing an environment in which airing disagreement is tolerated and intellectual diversity is welcomed.

Speak Freely offers a brief account of the core mission of a modern university as one of advancing and disseminating knowledge. It explains the relationship between free inquiry and that mission of advancing the frontiers of human knowledge and lessons we have learned about the dangers of suppressing ideas. With those principles in hand, it then takes up the kinds of controversies that have recently roiled college campuses, from the call for trigger warnings and safe spaces, to the regulation of hate speech, to the disinvitation of controversial speakers, to the threats to academic freedom.

The book concludes with a warning that universities risk becoming echo chambers of their own with stifling ideological orthodoxies and rigid limits on the scope of scholarly inquiry and public debate. Universities must resist the temptation to tolerate only comfortable conversations and conventional ideas if they are to realize their own institutional goals and make a helpful contribution to society at large.