An interview with professor and author Keith E. Whittington

Keith E. Whittington
Ricardo Barros

Disruptive protests of controversial outside speakers. “Trigger warnings” preceding hot-button classroom material. Policing of faculty members when they express provocative views on social media. These phenomena are increasingly common on college campuses around the country ­— and that’s a problem, according to Keith E. Whittington, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton and an expert on American constitutional theory and law. In his new book, Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, he outlines why campuses must be places where competing views can be freely expressed and vigorously debated. He spoke to PAW about why free speech is the “lifeblood” of the modern university, and what universities can do to promote tolerance and ideological diversity on campus.

Why is free speech important on college campuses?

Universities are primarily dedicated to advancing human knowledge and communicating what we know about the world to a broader audience. Both elements require us to preserve the ability to speak freely and to be tolerant of unorthodox views. Of course, there are limits on speech, but really we want to be thinking about how to make speech as useful and productive as possible, which means having the freedom to think through conflicting arguments. 

What’s the connection between free speech and intellectual diversity? Is it a problem if universities have a fairly homogeneous faculty or student body? 

Universities tend to be very liberal. That raises concerns that ideas and arguments that come from the political right are not engaged with as carefully and as seriously as they might otherwise be. And I think ultimately that has problematic consequences for how research agendas are constructed, how teaching is done, and how students are mentored. If our concern is to skeptically evaluate ideas, then we benefit from having a diverse set of voices, and we need to seek out people with different ideas from our own. So it’s problematic if a campus becomes so homogeneous that these perspectives are not heard. That doesn’t mean you should have a diversity of views just for the sake of having diversity of views; part of what universities are trying to do is to winnow out bad ideas. But it’s important to recognize that you lose something important if you don’t have access to the full range of thought on important topics. 

What do you think about the state of free speech and intellectual diversity at Princeton? 

EXCERPT Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech

I’m impressed by the extent to which people at Princeton take ideas seriously and are willing to carefully think through surprising and unusual claims. In part it’s because we have a lot of people here who take our commitment to scholarship and the pursuit of truth extremely seriously. It’s helpful to have faculty like [politics professor and constitutional scholar] Robbie George on the right and [bioethics professor and philosopher] Peter Singer on the left who represent a range of views and perspectives but are capable of engaging each other seriously and carefully — really modeling that behavior. 

Do protests of controversial speakers help or hinder free speech on campus?

When people do silent protests at controversial talks or demonstrations outside a speaking venue, I think that’s exactly what you want to see because the talk that’s being given isn’t disrupted. People are engaging with one another but not trying to obstruct others’ ability to express and communicate. 

Unfortunately, though, there’s been a steady drumbeat of people really trying to interrupt other people’s ability to engage. Charles Murray, for example, was infamously shouted down at Middlebury College, to the point where he wasn’t able to speak at all, and the professor who had invited him was actually injured by students who were protesting outside the place where he was speaking. There was another instance where students disrupted a free-speech conference with a range of speakers at Yale University, and spat on attendees as they left the venue. All of those instances indicate a serious and troubling intolerance of disagreement and of controversial ideas.

There’s been discussion at some universities about whether “trigger warnings” should be required for hot-button topics. Are there situations where concerns about “triggering” language or topics are more or less appropriate?

There’s a place for trigger warnings in situations where we would worry that the specific content of a college curriculum or a specific course might actually cause trauma to individual students. But the problem is that trigger warnings have been used much more expansively than that. There have been debates about including warnings about the content of lots of classes, and there’s a genuine concern that using trigger warnings so broadly will discourage faculty from using materials that might be controversial but educationally useful. This has been especially problematic in contexts like law schools, where topics like rape and sexual violence, for example, are part of a criminal-law curriculum. Removing that subject matter would have a direct and detrimental effect on students’ education. 

How do you try to expand the speech that happens in your classroom? 

It’s often useful to put disagreements in front of students. It’s easier to think through both the strengths and the weaknesses of a given argument if you see what the other side is thinking. And you want to create an environment in a classroom where students feel comfortable testing out ideas — even offering up ideas that are not fully thought through and are not fully persuasive but they want to explore. Students have to be comfortable making mistakes and expressing unpopular views.

What can a university do to ensure that there is vibrant free speech? 

It’s important for faculty members to model good behavior, to create an environment where it’s clear that the way you deal with ideas that you find disagreeable or wrong or offensive is by engaging them seriously rather than trying to shout them down. Unfortunately, some people on college campuses have fallen into a situation where they’re bringing people to campus simply to provoke others. Sometimes being provocative and outrageous can be useful as a way of getting people interested or getting them out of their habitual ways of thinking. But provocation and outrageousness are very limited virtues. Ultimately we want the best examples of people representing a range of views.

Interview conducted and condensed by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11