Keith Whittington on Campus Speech: Separating Light from Heat

Keith Whittington’s new book, Speak Freely, is both a warning and a call to action. When it comes to offering a cogent, nuanced defense of the academic value of free speech, now is not the time to be quiet.

Princeton University Politics professor Keith Whittington’s new book, Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, restores a crucial element to the ongoing debate surrounding free expression on campus: principle. It cuts through the knee-jerk rhetoric and hypocrisy that so often infects the speech issue to bring the conversation thoughtfully back to basics. Universities exist to produce and disseminate knowledge. Faculty and students cannot advance that mission without the ability to speak freely. It’s disappointing that we need Whittington to remind us of these foundational points, but we are fortunate that he did. When it comes to offering a cogent, nuanced defense of the academic value of free speech, now is not the time to be quiet.  

I write this shortly after the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that Marquette University wrongly suspended Professor John McAdams for comments he made on his personal website. McAdams, a tenured professor of political science, wrote a post criticizing a philosophy instructor for refusing to allow a student to debate same-sex marriage rights because “everybody agrees on this” and contrary opinions “are not appropriate.” A month later, Marquette suspended McAdams and banned him from campus. The university alleged that his online comments warranted revocation of tenure and termination because they failed to meet the school’s standards of excellence and impaired his “value” to the institution. The court disagreed, finding that Marquette “breached its contract with Dr. McAdams when it suspended him for engaging in activity protected by the contract’s guarantee of academic freedom.”  

The facts leading to the McAdams decision appear in Keith Whittington’s latest book, Speak Freely, alongside dozens of examples of what the author describes as “sad displays of excessive ideological polarization and repressive thought control” on American college campuses. Indeed, Whittington finds that instead of “serving as exemplars of civil engagement among those holding different views and of rational examination of competing ideas,” many university constituents today—from all sides of the political spectrum—routinely resort to censorship to quash disfavored viewpoints.  

I mention the Marquette incident in particular because it represents a microcosm of the concerns that Whittington identifies. On one level, it illustrates the formal pressure that university administrators can apply when they dislike certain speech—pressure that often comes regardless of pre-existing contractual (or constitutional) commitments to protect free expression. At the same time, it also presents an interesting window into the appetite for unorthodox arguments on campuses more generally. After all, while one can debate his tactfulness, the original source of McAdams’s ire was the claim that certain opinions are off limits within the ivory tower. Similar themes radiate from the infamous “de-platforming” of conservative social scientist Charles Murray at Middlebury College that left a faculty member physically injured, as well as the time when student protesters at William & Mary shut down a speaker from the ACLU who was planning to talk to them about—you guessed it—the rights of student protesters 

Whittington approaches these developments with a scholarly nuance that befits their complexity. He is not about to write off students as fragile “snowflakes” or dismiss faculty as hopeless ideologues. There is much more to the story, and Whittington frames his analysis with an eye toward understanding both the underlying dynamics that affect speech on campus and the larger consequences that follow an unwillingness to hear—let alone engage with—unpopular ideas.  

The book begins by noting that nearly all of the most significant advancements in the histories of science, medicine, finance, technology, and culture trace their roots to enterprising college faculty and students. At the same time, Whittington acknowledges that universities must remain faithful to their original purpose of producing and disseminating knowledge if they hope to sustain their relevance and importance. This means focusing on the advancement of human knowledge for its own sake rather than steering scholarship into pre-determined ideological boxes. It means building reliable methodologies and then forging into unknown territory without any expectation of where the research will lead—and then sharing what one discovers so that others can weigh its implications or take it in new directions. “Scholarship is a conversation,” Whittington writes, “a conversation that extends across generations and across the globe, and to shut oneself off from that conversation is to shut oneself off from the scholarly enterprise itself.”  

Of course, at the heart of this conversation is speech. And here Whittington’s book stands solidly next to the likes of Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors and the University of Chicago’s statement on free expression by focusing not only on what the First Amendment might legally require of public schools, but by showing that free speech is the very principle that makes a university a university. Any approach to the contrary inherently jeopardizes the reasoned exchange of ideas that fuels the environment necessary for lasting and meaningful discovery. As Whittington explains, “For ideas to really take root and become firm, and justifiable, convictions, they must be tested in intellectual battle.” The gauntlet of open inquiry is the only reliable way for universities to truly separate light from heat. Faculty, students, and administrators who forget this lesson do so at the university’s collective peril.  

This observation is often a hard pill to swallow. Most people hate having their beliefs challenged, or being told that they might be wrong. It is uncomfortable and threatening, and it explains why many campus constituents assume that the First Amendment does not protect “hate speech” (it does). Life feels more secure in the absence of pushback. Yet history proves that this is a false security, and one born from arrogance. As Whittington reminds us,  

The idea that a hate speech exception would be applied strictly and stay limited flies in the face of our historical experience. When charged with the duty to suppress hateful speech, officials have repeatedly understood that duty as a mandate to suppress unpopular speech and speech they personally find offensive and unpalatable.  

To this last point, a clear strength of Whittington’s book is its steady focus on principle over political point-scoring. Speech suppression is not something that only affects the right or the left. While it might seem that conservative speech is what’s targeted most frequently today, it was not that long ago when campus censors set their sights mainly on civil rights groups, anti-war groups, and many other causes on the left side of the spectrum. Just this past July the Republican governor of Kansas successfully persuaded the University of Kansas to remove a piece of artwork featuring the American flag because it offended his sense of patriotism. Meanwhile, at the World Cup in Russia, fans wishing to show their support for LGBT rights must rely on the strategic use of shirt colors, since the act of carrying rainbow flags or displaying rainbow symbols can lead to arrest under state “anti-gay propaganda” laws. It is simply an act of historical malpractice to forget that free speech is what best enables the marginalized and the politically powerless to guard against discrimination and inequality—and to win others to their side. 

Returning to the image of battle, I’m reminded of a line from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series: “When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.” It takes courage and humility for scholars to open themselves up to unfettered scrutiny and admit that they cannot know the truth about all things, but the rejection of these qualities sets universities on the path to becoming, in Whittington’s words, mere “echo chambers of orthodox creeds” that no longer hold social value as places of serious scholarship.  

Justice Potter Stewart of the United States Supreme Court made a similar point in Ginzburg v. United States when he wrote that “censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself.” Whittington’s book should give everyone with an interest in higher education greater confidence to speak and to listen. Words can and often do inflict pain. But the essence of a university education is learning how to critically examine and respond to arguments that one finds both attractive and repulsive—and to do so with civility, empathy, and resilience. The scholarly enterprise depends on its participants being willing to change minds through the power of persuasion, not force. 

In this way, Speak Freely strikes me as a campus equivalent of the security message I hear every time I fly through O’Hare: if you see something, say something. The book is simultaneously a warning and a call to action. Princeton is wise to give copies to all students and faculty as part of the university’s annual “Pre-read” program. Other schools should follow its lead. Scholars who are brave enough to speak up without regard to what is fashionable or what aligns with the prevailing campus orthodoxy—and who protect the rights of others to do the same—protect us all. They form the backbone of an intellectual framework that has sustained human flourishing for centuries. 

The views expressed here are the author’s own.

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