Keith E. Whittington


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

Cover Interview of January 02, 2019


I hope the book can contribute to a national conversation about the role of universities in society, about intellectual diversity and free inquiry on college campuses, and ultimately for the value of tolerance of disagreement and dissent in a liberal democracy.

In the spring of 2015, I was among a group of professors who spearheaded an effort at Princeton University for the faculty to adopt the University of Chicago’s statement on the principles of free expression. The University of Chicago statement was issued in 2012 and provided an admirable and brief articulation of the importance of free and open inquiry in institutions of higher education. I thought Princeton’s faculty should endorse that statement not because Princeton had a particular problem with free speech on campus but because it was important for us to be seen to reaffirm those values at a time when many across the nation were calling them into question.

I would like to see university faculty everywhere taking a lead in fostering a discussion on their own campuses of what core values animate those institutions and the degree to which their own institutions are committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech. Those will sometimes be difficult conversations, and not everyone will always be in agreement. But I think we have seen that if professors are not willing to stand up for the importance of freedom of thought on college campuses, then others will take the opportunity to erode that freedom away. If professors decide to sit on the sidelines on this issue, they should not be surprised to find that someone else – whether students, administrators or politicians – will take it upon themselves to take action and might well impose solutions that restrict the freedom that faculty have long enjoyed on college campuses.

Those of us on college campuses need to be more self-conscious about the values that are important to the academic enterprise and make more of an effort to affirm and explain those values and to socialize those who are entering college campuses into understanding and sharing those values. We should not be surprised if first-year undergraduates arrive on college campuses with no appreciation of the importance of civil debate and the appropriate limits on forms of protest on those campuses. We should undertake the work of orienting those students to the expectations and responsibilities of being part of a scholarly community and not just of orienting those students on how to avoid injury while partying and how to find the dining hall. We should undertake the work of informing new graduate students and faculty of the importance of academic freedom and their responsibilities as scholars and teachers.

There are no doubt policies and rules on college campuses that implicate free speech and that could use some reform and revision, but the bigger challenge is not how to design good policies but how to foster a good culture. Students and professors alike need to feel comfortable working through difficult ideas. Students and professors alike need to be encouraged to ask hard questions, to challenge received wisdom, to step outside the mainstream, to follow the arguments and evidence wherever they may lead, and to think carefully about the old ideas that they take for granted and the new ideas that they encounter.

Ultimately, we should hope that ideas are taken seriously outside of academia as well as inside of it. We would be better off if we could live in a society in which we can productively engage with those with whom we disagree, can approach hard problems with an open mind, and can tolerate those who reach different conclusions than we do. At the very least, members of the campus community should be modelling those traits, and universities should be building communities infused with a spirit of intellectual curiosity and openness to a diverse array of perspectives and ideas.