Review Of Keith E. Whittington, Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech

September 2018

Speak Freely’s message is clear and straightforward: free speech is integral to the modern university and, without it, the university’s mission of promoting open and robust intellectual inquiry would be undermined. According to Keith E. Whittington, any institution that sets aside the principle of free speech “can no longer be meaningfully regarded as a proper institution of higher education” (29).

Whittington provides a comprehensive foundation for those interested in the theory, tradition, and future of free speech. He reviews John Stuart Mill’s key arguments from On Liberty; Herbert Marcuse’s theory of “repressive tolerance” and how the tolerance of dissenting ideas is only valuable insofar as it leads to “liberation”; the new phenomena of safe spaces and trigger warnings; the politics of guest speakers and protestors; the necessity of academic freedom, and more. Ultimately, for Whittington, it all comes back to a commitment to truth-seeking, as well as the ability to understand others, ourselves, and the world at large.

Anyone invested in campus free speech issues today understands that these issues are not superficial. Free speech is connected to open inquiry, the role of the university in society, and the philosophy of liberalism. Whittington covers all of these facets concisely and cohesively. Those involved in campus free speech advocacy will see many of their own personal experiences reflected in this book’s pages, and likely find themselves nodding along enthusiastically. I recently completed my Master’s degree Major Research Paper on the topic of campus free speech issues, and I had Speak Freely beside me throughout the entire writing process.

The Canadian reader might find this book to be quite American-centric, with much discussion of the First Amendment; Republicans and Democrats; various American resolutions and acts; and organizations such as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). If anything, this brings attention to how a Canadian version of Speak Freely would be a much-needed addition to our country’s bookshelves. What is particularly valuable about Whittington’s approach is his balance and perspective: he notes that both liberals and conservatives have tried to suppress free speech at different points in time – for economic, religious, moral, political, or philosophical reasons – thus there has been no “golden age” of free speech on campus. Whittington never comes off as propagandistic or politically motivated – simply dedicated to an institution he sees as valuable for all.

The book concludes by stating that while “troubling currents” are swirling through college campuses, the campuses “are not yet in crisis” (177). Whittington urges his readers to not be overly pessimistic over what seems to be a general lack of commitment to free speech and other civil liberties among young people. He does state, though, that universities must be reminded of their foundational commitment to open inquiry.

Whittington’s central argument should be non-controversial to anyone who values the university’s role in society: free speech is integral to the mission of the university. As members of the academic community and torchbearers of its liberal tradition, we – as students, faculty members, alumni, and administrators – must commit ourselves to the principle of maximum freedom of expression.