The right to free speech isn’t just a part of the U.S. Constitution, it’s a cultural value that most Americans support, at least according to opinion polls over the years. Free inquiry is also part of the core mission of higher education in the United States. That’s one reason why the appropriate limitation of “free speech” is always such a hotly debated point on college campuses even though the First Amendment — which only prohibits the government, not other institutions, from restricting free speech — does not necessarily apply.
Last year “free speech” controversies generated endless conflict on campuses and reams of media commentary. At Princeton University several students walked out of anthropology professor Lawrence Rosen’s hate speech class after he said the n-word in a lecture on racial slurs. The school administration stood by him, but Rosen cancelled the class.
At Middlebury College in 2017 a student protest against a speech by infamous white nationalist race pseudo-scientist Charles Murray got out of hand, and an unknown person grabbed Murray’s faculty interviewer by the hair, twisting her neck and giving her a concussion. (Whether these incidents indicate a growing censoriousness in academia, or if they are isolated, overblown headlines is a matter of debate.)
Every year Princeton University’s incoming class of freshmen is given a “pre-read” assignment that is discussed at an assembly during orientation. This year Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber chose a book that addresses these issues — “Speak Freely,” by Princeton politics professor Keith E. Whittington, published in March by Princeton University Press — and chose, for the first time, to distribute a copy of the book to every member of the student body and faculty.
In “Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech,” Whittington says that free speech on campus is under attack. He makes the case that universities should err on the side of letting controversial ideas be discussed openly. That means colleges should allow student groups to invite controversial speakers to campus, even when such speakers are intentionally inflammatory “provocateurs” with nothing of value to say, intent only on provoking protest for its own sake (such as far-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos, who last year was uninvited from the Conservative Political Action Conference).
For his own part, Whittington says he has never felt that his own free speech has been suppressed, even though, as he writes in the introduction of the book, being at an elite East Coast university has brought out the “Texas populist” in him. “My fit within academia has not always been a natural one,” he writes. “My political inclination might charitably called outside the mainstream of university faculty.” At Princeton he has the company of at least one other conservative professor, Robert George, who also has advocated for free speech and urged incoming students to think for themselves rather than automatically accept orthodox views.
Whittington himself received his bachelor’s in government, finance, and business from the University of Texas at Austin in 1990 and his PhD in political science from Yale in 1995. He has been on the Princeton faculty since 1997.
Whittington’s point of view was given a significant boost in February when Eisgbruber assigned his book to the Class of 2022. “President Eisgruber is quite invested in this issue,” Whittington says. “They have had a bit of a wake up call about free speech on campus, but it’s been a bubbling issue for a long time.”
Whittington’s book proves this point by documenting free speech campus controversies from more than 100 years ago, highlighting the many parallels they shared with today’s debates. Whittington says it is hard to quantify over that span of time whether free speech is truly becoming more threatened. In his book he highlights several different trends that he perceives as threats to free speech.
One is campus activists — usually liberal students — disrupting speakers they disagree with to the point where their speech is effectively suppressed. Another is controversial speakers being uninvited due to pressure from students. Yet another is state legislatures — usually conservative — taking action against faculty who say things they don’t like. Lastly is students and faculty alike attempting to restrict the range of ideas that can be discussed on campus and establishing a kind of “campus orthodoxy” on certain issues.
Even Whittington, however, admits that there should be certain limits on speech. In “Speak Freely,” he says there would be no reason to tolerate a racist speaker who came to campus to shout racial slurs, for example.
“No one is a pure free speech absolutist,” he says. “Everyone has some limits on free speech. The question really is, ‘What does that look like?’ What are the limits in the sense of, what things can you reasonably prohibit or discipline people for doing?”
Appropriate free speech changes with context. Whittington says universities should promote civil discourse in classes. “In a classroom context, you want to encourage people to think carefully about a set of ideas and you want that to be done in a fairly deliberate way. Having people call each other names or shouting at each other and the like is highly unproductive,” he says.
At the same time, however, Whittington cautions that campuses should not quash student protests — even rude ones — as long as those protests do not interfere with the free speech of others. “If you’re having a political protest on campus there is a different set of expectations for how people ought to conduct themselves. It depends on the circumstances,” he says.
In the case of Rosen and the racial slur said in the classroom, Whittington believes the university acted appropriately by backing the professor. “We want to clearly communicate with students about why they might encounter these things in the classroom,” he says. “If you’re signing up for a class specifically on hate speech and taboo offensive customs and expressions, then students should have some expectation when they sign up for the class that they are going to encounter those things.”
On the other hand, Whittington says the faculty may be able to find a way to discuss controversial topics in a way that is more engaging and doesn’t provoke a walkout. The book is not a polemic against oversensitive college students. “I don’t think college students today are uniquely sensitive or uniquely offended by things,” he says.
Overall, Whittington says punishing anyone for saying something should be very rare. “There ought to be relatively few things that we actually want to discipline people for doing in the realm of free speech,” he says.
Whittington was not concerned that events about his own book — an assembly followed by smaller discussion groups — would be disrupted by protestors. “My general approach to things is to try to understand the issues and discuss them as deliberately and carefully as possible,’ he says. “It is true that emotions can run high right now on these issues, and one of the reasons I wrote the book was that I was concerned about the direction that universities are going and the country more generally was going in thinking about free speech issues. When you wade into the arena of public controversy, sometimes you get passionate disagreement, and that’s fine and to be expected. I think this is an important issue to get right.”
Whittington says he is worried that some students do not appreciate the value of free speech in academia, and how it is essential to the purpose of higher education.
Given that the best publicized “free speech” incidents involved right-wing speakers, a left-leaning reader might be tempted to interpret Whittington’s plea for tolerance of different viewpoints as merely another shot in the culture wars, fired at liberals. But his actual viewpoint is more nuanced than that.
In the book, Whittington cautions lefties that they should be wary about empowering censorship of free speech against their political enemies. After all, he says, the left may have more to fear from censorship than the right, noting that historically, Marxist thought has been heavily suppressed by authorities.
After “Speak Freely “ was published, Georgetown University’s Free Speech Project released a study that lent credence to this point. The study examined 90 incidents between 2016 and 2018 in which a person’s free speech was restricted, about 60 of which took place on college campuses. The study found that there were relatively few right-wing figures who were uninvited from events or had their speech shut down. Most of the incidents were against a handful of people: Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, Charles Murray, and Ann Coulter. The study also found that most of the free speech suppression was little publicized, but perpetrated against left-wing professors. For example, Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s 2018 commencement speech at the University of California at San Diego was canceled after she received death threats for criticizing Donald Trump.
Government has interfered in college speech in the last few years. Wisconsin’s Republican-led Assembly passed a bill that would suspend or expel student protestors. In 2016 the GOP-led legislature in Arizona passed a law banning the University of Arizona from hosting speakers who supported protest boycotts against Israel. And in Iowa, one Republican legislator submitted a bill that would require “ideological balance” in academic faculties.
Liberal college professors have also been targeted by a “watch list” compiled by Turning Point USA, a conservative activist group that says professors are treating conservative students unfairly. “Watchlists and things like that can shine a spotlight on people, and that’s fair game,” Whittington says. “But they can also be a tool for drumming up mob justice and just a way of mobilizing harassment against individuals, or encouraging universities to fire people for saying the wrong thing, and this is much more troubling.”
Whittington says universities should be aggressive in protecting faculty that find themselves in such situations and push back against efforts to intimidate and harass them.
While there is some disagreement about where exactly to draw the line on free speech, Whittington says it’s important not to take it for granted. “It’s a constant struggle in a liberal democracy like the United States to reaffirm for each generation why we care about civil liberties, why we care about free speech, and why we care about academic freedom. It’s important not to take these things for granted.”
“Speak Freely” is available on Amazon.com for $10.85.