Keith E. Whittington


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

Cover Interview of January 02, 2019

A close-up

For a reader “just browsing” the book, there is a natural inclination to skip ahead to chapter three and some of the specific sections there. In that chapter, I take up the various kinds of controversies that have recently roiled university campuses in the United States and elsewhere and apply general principles of free speech to help us think through how we should resolve them. That chapter is full of specific examples of controversies that have arisen and things that have gone wrong on college campuses. What are safe spaces, and do they have a place on a college campus? Must universities regulate “hate speech”? Do demonstrators have a right to shout down speakers with whom they disagree? Should professors who express repulsive views on social media face university discipline? The chapter points to cases where university students, faculty and administrators have behaved rather badly, as well as to some cases where they have behaved admirably.

As best I can, I try to explain the range of perspectives and competing concerns that give rise to these sorts of controversies. When you start to dig into most issues, you generally find that things are complicated and the answers are not as obvious as they might seem from a distance. There are often good arguments on all sides of the debate, and despite their disagreements people are often acting in good faith and from good motives. Nonetheless, I think it is possible to make progress on these issues and persuade those who come to these debates with an open mind and a willingness to think about the issues seriously.

I hope the sections in this chapter can encourage campus activists to think twice before trying to shout down a speaker, a conservative student group to think twice about whether to invite a provocateur or a serious intellectual to campus, a politician to think twice about whether to call for a professor to be fired for a bad tweet, and university presidents to think twice before issuing public denunciations or worse regarding professors who have become a source of public controversy. Both the left and the right need to make space on campus for their ideological antagonists to have their say – and preferably to learn how to engage with those antagonists with a spirit of both skepticism and charity.

I do hope, however, that readers who are just browsing those sections of the book on campus controversies find themselves intrigued enough to dig into other sections of the book, such as the mission of the university and the reasons for extending robust protections to the freedom of speech.