T. Kevin Birch




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

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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.

January 2, 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.

January 2, 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.

January 2, 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.

January 2, 2019
Keith E. Whittington Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech Princeton University Press 232 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches ISBN 978 1400889884
T. Kevin Birch

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University. His books include Constitutional Interpretation, Constitutional Construction, and Political Foundations of Judicial Supremacy. His most recent book is Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, published by Princeton University Press in 2018. His next book, Repugnant Laws: Judicial Review of Acts of Congress from the Founding to the Present will appear in the spring of 2019, and he is currently completing work on Constitutional Crises, Real and Imagined.

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January 2, 2019