The start of the academic year saw the publication of several books by scholars about free speech on campus. Now joining those volumes is Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech (Princeton University Press). The author is Keith E. Whittington, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University. He responded via email to questions about his new book.
Q: Several books have been published on campus free speech issues in the last year. What distinguishes your approach?
A: Over the past few years, I’ve found myself increasingly concerned about the future of higher education in the United States. Off campus there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding of what universities do and skepticism about their basic mission. On campus there’s a genuine struggle over what the future of these institutions is going to be. I thought there was a need for an accessible defense of intellectual diversity and free inquiry on college campuses that explained how the values of free speech and tolerance for disagreement are central to the mission of the university itself and to our core concern with advancing human knowledge and communicating what we have learned. I want to help both students and faculty think through some of the broader principles that can help us navigate these immediate controversies.
Q: Legally, the issues differ somewhat for public and private institutions. But your argument seems less legalistic and more on the role of higher education. Do you think there are any different ethical obligations on this issue for public and private institutions?
A: The law can be helpful in clarifying some of the relevant issues as we grapple with free speech controversies, but as members of the campus community, we ought to value free speech for our own purposes and not just because we are sometimes constrained to do so by legal authorities.
Public universities have to worry more about those legal restrictions, but both private and public universities have a common concern with how free speech is instrumental to the truth-seeking mission of the university and how learning to work through disagreements with reason and deliberation is an important aspect of what universities try to impart. Private institutions do have more flexibility in charting their own course, and some might choose to pursue a quite different mission. Most obviously, religious institutions might prioritize some commitments based on faith over free-ranging skeptical inquiry, but we should be clear-eyed about the compromises that are being made in such cases to the vision of a university where scholars can in engage in the fearless pursuit of the truth.
Q: Some college leaders who say they support free speech have not acted when disruptions were taking place on their campus or punished those who disrupted. Others have removed and punished. Do you believe colleges should remove/punish those who disrupt?
A: It is critical that universities stand behind their core values and establish clear expectations about appropriate behavior on campus. Campus groups have a right to pursue their own activities, including hearing from controversial speakers, without undue interference. It is fine to disagree with what some speakers say on campus and to voice those disagreements, but disrupting an event is not an appropriate way to express those disagreements.
Those who are disruptive should be removed so that an event can proceed so a willing audience can hear from a willing speaker. Students, faculty and administrators who inappropriately interfere with the ability of others to pursue their own activities on campus should be subject to discipline. In general, education should be preferable to discipline, and administrators should have the flexibility to deal with situations on a case-by-case basis.
But disruptive activity can’t be costless, and universities need to be willing and able to act to prevent an erosion of the norms that allow for robust public debate and free scholarly inquiry. It sends a very troubling message when disruptions are simply condoned. College leaders have a responsibility to rise to the defense of their own faculty when they are threatened for saying controversial things in public and to maintain an environment on campus where students and faculty are capable of discussing controversial ideas.
Q: Beyond speakers, there is the question of what goes on in classrooms. At Princeton, an anthropology professor recently used the N-word in class, was criticized and, while the university defended him, he dropped the course. Should the university have responded more forcefully or in different ways to prevent him from feeling it appropriate to call off his course?
A: Fortunately, Princeton University has been very good on free speech and academic freedom issues in general, and I think the university appropriately spoke up in the defense of faculty members having the freedom to teach their courses as they think best and in ways that might sometimes make students uncomfortable. I’ve argued elsewhere that faculty will sometimes need to do and say things in the classroom that are genuinely offensive if they are going to help students think their way through some important but difficult topics, including the kinds of cultural taboos and offensive materials that were the subject of that anthropology class.
Princeton, like other universities, should be clear with students that they should expect to encounter things in the classroom that will unsettle them. If students are unprepared to do that, then they might need to rethink their course of study. I worry about the signal that the cancellation of the class might send, but at the end of the day the professor had to make his own decision about whether he thought the class could still achieve its objectives given what had happened. I wouldn’t want to second-guess his conclusion that that particular class with that set of students that semester had gotten off on the wrong foot and was no longer salvageable, but everyone involved should understand that such a class and such classroom conversations have a place on the Princeton campus.
Q: What do you make of “hate speech”? Should Richard Spencer be given the same rights to speak on campus as, for example, Peter Singer, a noted philosopher whose views offend many?
A: “Hate speech” is a broad and ill-defined category. There is general agreement that threats and personal harassment have no place on campus. We should be very reluctant, however, to declare that the consideration of some ideas have no place on campus. A college campus is precisely where we should be able to scrutinize controversial, outrageous and marginal ideas. Having said that, we should be spending our time on campus trying to engage with serious ideas and in the most intellectually productive way possible. We need to make choices of what to read and discuss in the classroom when we construct a syllabus.
But we also need to make choices outside the classroom about what ideas are worth debating and how, including those ideas that we do not think are academically serious. We should want to hear from the best, most serious advocates of ideas that matter to our public debates, even if those ideas are outside the political and social mainstream -- and even when we think they are misguided and wrong. We can disagree vociferously with Peter Singer and yet learn a lot from him. We would be fools to not want to hear from him and read his work. The same cannot be said for Richard Spencer. That doesn’t mean that Spencer should be specifically prohibited from speaking on campus, but I don’t see any reason why we should be inviting him to speak on a college campus.
Q: What can academic leaders do -- prior to an incident -- to promote the right to speak freely on campus?
A: It would be far better to avoid campus incidents rather than try to deal with the fallout from an event gone wrong. And it should be emphasized that the vast majority of the time, classes are taught, ideas are debated, speakers give speeches on campuses across the country without incident. But there are steps that can be taken to promote campus free speech. First, leaders need to affirm the right principles. Academic leaders need to say clearly what universities stand for and look for opportunities to educate trustees, alumni, students, parents, politicians and the general public about the purpose of the university and how free speech principles fit into that. When those principles are challenged, academic leaders need to stand by them. Second, we need to socialize new members of the campus community into the commitments, values and expectations of that community. We cannot simply take it for granted that incoming students understand the nature of the institutions that they are joining, and it is quite evident that many do not.
Colleges spend a lot of effort trying to orient students to their new campus environment, but we have given little attention to making sure they understand the purposes and value of the educational enterprise that they are entering. Third, we need to take care in how we administer the regulations and procedures that help organize campus life and coordinate the various activities of the members of the campus community in a way that is conducive to creating an environment in which freedom of thought flourishes. Those policies need to be written and implemented in a way that fosters the free exchange of ideas rather than obstructs or suppresses them. That might sometimes entail discipline when campus expectations have been violated, but hopefully more often clarity, planning and conversation will be sufficient to allow us to live and work together peacefully and productively.