Keith E. Whittington


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

Cover Interview of January 02, 2019

The wide angle

Over the past few years, I realized that I was taking some very important things for granted, and that was probably a mistake. Speak Freely is part of an effort to address that oversight and to speak out on some issues that need to be discussed.

Most basically, I have been disturbed by how colleges and universities are perceived by the wider public and their growing misunderstanding of and skepticism about what universities do. When I was growing up in Texas in the 1980s, the leaders of the state had set a goal for themselves of building a set of world-class public universities which they believed would be crucial to the social, economic, and political development of the state, the country, and ultimately the world. We have moved a long way from aspirations. Instead, there is political pressure to disinvest from public universities, a growing contempt for the scholarly enterprise, and deep political distrust of professors in particular. If we are to counter those trends, those of us in campus communities need to put our own house in order but also engage more with the public and explain what it is we are trying to do in universities.

More broadly, in an age of increasing political polarization, it becomes both more important and more difficult to tolerate disagreement and learn how to engage with those with whom we disagree. I study and teach American constitutional history and transformations in judicial doctrines regarding free speech and civil liberties. I worry that we are forgetting the lessons of the past and in danger of backsliding in our commitments to civil liberty. There are illiberal forces increasingly prominent on both the political left and the political right, and I felt some responsibility to help make the case to the public for the virtue of traditional liberal values of free speech, tolerance of differences and dissent, respect for individual liberty, and political progress through dialogue and deliberation. The college campus is a microcosm of society more broadly, and we should be nurturing inclusive communities capable of talking through our disagreements.

More specifically, I have been appalled by some of the developments on college campuses across the country and across the world. I do not believe that things are uniquely bad now, but universities face some serious challenges in charting a future that preserves the core values of a modern university. Students, parents, alumni, and even faculty do not always understand that universities are places in which ideas are taken seriously and that difficult, disagreeable, and controversial ideas should be freely discussed and carefully evaluated. University administrators face some natural pressures to try to manage public controversies and make them go away, but it is important to emphasize that it is the business of universities to court controversy. Universities have historically served as a refuge where ideas outside the mainstream of society can be voiced and debated. At their best, universities are places where people with a wide range of views can come together to seriously discuss difficult ideas. If they are living up to their ideals, we should expect to see opinions expressed on college campuses that many will find shocking, and we should see those same opinions criticized rather than suppressed.

The fact that there are people on college campuses who hold ideas antithetical to your own and who are prepared to argue for those ideas is a feature, not a bug. We should be doing more to cultivate a diverse and stimulating intellectual environment on college campuses and to explain and defend the core mission of universities.