The following introduction to Professor Keith Whittington’s Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech (Princeton University Press) was included in copies of the 2018 Princeton Pre-read and is reprinted with permission.
Since taking office as Princeton’s president in 2013, I have selected a scholarly book each year as the “Princeton Pre-read.” Entering undergraduates receive the Pre-read prior to their arrival on campus. One goal of the program is to raise ethical questions relevant to a Princeton education. The book informs my Opening Exercises remarks, becomes the topic for the Freshman Assembly, and is the subject of discussions held in the residential colleges during the fall semester. Because this year’s Pre-read addresses questions central to the mission of the University, we are distributing copies not only to incoming undergraduates but also to other members of our campus community.
If you are a member of the undergraduate Class of 2022, a new transfer student, an incoming graduate student, or a new member of Princeton’s faculty or staff, please let me extend a warm welcome to you! We are delighted that you are joining our campus community.
Whether you are new to Princeton or a returning Tiger, I hope you will join me in reading and discussing Keith Whittington’s Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech. Its topic, free speech on college campuses, is a hot-button issue in politics, the media, and society more broadly. People have been outraged by protests that disrupted speeches or caused them to be canceled. Liberals and conservatives alike have portrayed these episodes as evidence that something has gone wrong with universities, young people, or our country.
These are serious concerns, and all of us who care about higher education should consider them carefully. In this book, Professor Whittington, who teaches in Princeton’s Department of Politics, takes up that challenge. He explains why the truth- seeking mission of colleges and universities demands that we permit the expression of opinions that we regard as wrongheaded, immoral, or offensive. The ideal he describes is one that he traces to John Stuart Mill, and that I often associate with the famous civil libertarian and Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” Briefly put: whenever possible, answer bad arguments with counterarguments, not with censorship. That idea is essential both to a free democratic society and to a great university.
Professor Whittington also insists—quite rightly, in my view—that “the university as a whole must be committed to fostering a campus climate that is civil, respectful, and tolerant of all” (p. 73). Permitting “offensive” speech while creating a “civil” and “respectful” campus climate is no easy trick. For example, although universities must defend the freedom to express a wide variety of opinions, they also have a legal and ethical obligation to stop sexual harassment, including verbal harassment. We need to be clear, however, that in American law and under Princeton’s policies, “harassment” is a specific and limited category: it applies only to unwelcome behavior that is directed at a person on the basis of a protected characteristic, and that is pervasive or severe. A statement or argument may be sexist and offensive without constituting sexual harassment, but when genuine harassment occurs, “more speech” is not a sufficient remedy. In that situation, the unwelcome behavior must cease.
Though Professor Whittington does not treat the case of sexual harassment in any detail, he clearly appreciates the need for universities to pursue both free speech and inclusivity. One virtue of his book is its thoughtful unpacking of competing considerations that often get overlooked in emotional debates about concepts such as “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.”
Importantly, Professor Whittington rejects the claim that free speech controversies are peculiarly the fault of today’s young people. He points out that polls have shown for decades that while Americans favor free speech in the abstract, they often have trouble adhering to their professed ideals when confronted with speech they dislike. Today’s young people are, in this respect at least, neither better nor worse than their elders. Indeed, while I occasionally hear from students who want me to protect them from opinions with which they disagree, I also get messages from adults asking me to condemn a controversial speaker, or to fire one or another of Princeton’s most outspoken professors. The most common line in these complaints is “Of course I believe in free speech, but so-and-so has taken it too far!”
Neither Professor Whittington nor I would deny that free speech is a challenge for today’s students. It most certainly is—but it is a challenge for today’s students because it is a challenge for us all. Free speech is a demanding value, not an easy one. We all have an obligation to wrestle with its meaning and understand the responsibilities that it imposes upon us. And because robust argument and disagreement are so important to what universities do, those of us on college campuses have a special and distinctive responsibility to discuss and live up to the ideals associated with the freedom of speech.
Professor Whittington emphasizes that understanding the importance of free speech to our campus community depends on comprehending the purposes that define us as a university. His examination of those purposes is crucial to his book. He argues that fearless truth seeking is at the heart of every great university’s teaching and research. I agree. He also maintains that universities must care about knowledge for its own sake. I agree about that too. We have many faculty members and students who pursue profound or beautiful truths without asking whether they will yield practical benefits. I hope that all students who pass through this University will at some point experience the joy and delight of scholarly discovery, and that they will leave Princeton believing that lifelong learning is a critical and distinctive element of human flourishing. I suspect that all of my colleagues on the Princeton faculty would share this aspiration for our students.
Speak Freely takes these claims further, however. Professor Whittington writes that academic research might aid “the struggle to cure a disease, or manufacture a product,” but he suggests that such successes are merely a “secondary by-product” of what a university does (p. 14). On this point I suspect many members of our faculty would disagree. Some of them believe that having a practical impact is an essential element of their scholarly and teaching mission. For example, Emily Carter, dean of Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, says on the school’s website that “as engineers and applied scientists, we start from a deep foundation in fundamental science and then apply those principles to make a positive difference in the world.” Universities seek to serve the public good in more ways than one. While I do not believe that every student or faculty member need pursue practical inquiries designed to “make a positive difference in the world,” I think it is a good thing, and entirely consistent with the University’s purpose, that many do.
Professor Whittington also says that “everything else that universities do flows from th[eir] twin mission of generating and disseminating knowledge” (p. 16). I am not so sure of that. Would our musicians, dancers, and poets, for example, regard this as a fully satisfactory description of their important contributions to our mission? What about our coaches and athletes? Perhaps, but I think there are better ways to understand what they and others do. The quest to generate and disseminate knowledge is indeed the vital and essential core of any great university, but we also value artistic beauty, human development, and service to others, among other ideals. In my view, these values supplement our commitment to discovering and disseminating knowledge for its own sake; they are not merely its secondary by-products. Supplementing our mission in this way can be a very good thing, as long as we continue to respect the primacy and integrity of truth-seeking teaching and research.
I offer these observations not as complaints about a book that I think is very good, but as an illustration of what it means to engage with a book and, ultimately, with the concepts of free speech and the truth-seeking university. These concepts cannot be reduced to a set of definitions or a list of rules. They are the subject of persistent disagreements, disagreements that reflect not only current conventions and practices, but also our aspirations and ideals. Our answer to the question “What are the purposes of a university?” inevitably depends, in other words, on how we answer the question “What should the purposes of a university be?” The only way to honor and embrace concepts such as “the freedom of speech” or “the truth-seeking university” is by thinking through and participating in arguments about their meaning and application.
As you take up that responsibility, you may find yourself in agreement with Professor Whittington’s account of a university’s purposes, or mine, or neither—or even both, if you end up thinking that my view is reconcilable with his. In any event, I hope that you find much to agree with in Professor Whittington’s book and also, like me, some things with which to disagree. As Professor Whittington emphasizes, the process of constructive disagreement is essential to what we do at Princeton: we learn from one another, and we also learn by disagreeing with one another.
My own friendship with Professor Whittington is a case in point. He and I both study the U.S. Constitution, and we have been agreeing and disagreeing with one another for nearly two decades. Through the years, we have commented upon one another’s papers and carried on discussions in seminars and over meals. Our friendship has been long-lived and valuable not in spite of our disagreements, but partly because of them.
To all of you who come to Princeton this year, I extend my wish that you will find that and many other kinds of friendship here: friendships that endure, friendships that reinforce your spirit and support your aspirations, friendships that broaden your horizons, and friendships that nurture disagreement, insight, and joy. Keith Whittington says, “The scholarly enterprise is fundamentally communal” (p. 15). I agree, and I am very glad that you will now become part of this community. Welcome to Princeton.
Christopher L. Eisgruber
Princeton, New Jersey
1. Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 377 (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring).
2. Section 1.2.2 of Princeton’s Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities (2017 edition) pro-vides in relevant part that “harassment is unwelcome verbal or physical behavior which is directed at a person based on a protected characteristic, when these behaviors are sufficiently severe and/or pervasive to have the effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s educational experience, working conditions or living conditions by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.”
3. Section 1.1.3 of Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities, the University’s “Statement on Freedom of Expression,” includes “expression . . . that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment” in a list describing categories of speech that the University may regulate or restrict.