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Author delivers lecture on free speech

| Friday, August 31, 2018

Dr. Keith Whittington never expected to write on the topic of free speech. As Whittington introduced himself before his lecture on his new book, “Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech,” on Thursday afternoon, he explained that he set aside projects more related to his specialty in constitutional interpretation to focus on an issue he could no longer ignore.

“I think it’s critically important that we collectively think seriously about what it is we want universities to do and what that implies about how we ought to conduct ourselves on campuses and what we ought to tolerate and engage in on college campuses,” Whittington said.

Whittington spoke as part of the Constitutional Studies’ effort to delve into American society’s conflicted attitude toward free speech and how it affects the conversations on college campuses. Whittington said that the issue of free speech is not a new one but that the American people have been grappling with its implications for as long as public opinion surveys have been used in research.

“Regardless of what kind of audience you ask, whether it’s the mass public or lawyers or college students or the like, overwhelmingly Americans tend to say that they value free speech, they value the First Amendment, they value tolerance, they think all those things are very important,” he said. “But then when you start pressing them on, ‘Well, what about this particular example of speech that you find particularly repellent?’ well, then they start trying to carve out exceptions.”

This dilemma, Whittington said, is part of the challenge of living in a liberal democracy, and it requires us to accept that supporting free speech means tolerating speech that is at times troubling. Whittington said this tolerance is especially important on college campuses, where the pursuit of knowledge is tantamount.

“In the context of a university in particular, we’re particularly concerned with trying to press forward to better understand the world,” he said. “And pressing forward to better understand the world means leaving lots of space open for people to make mistakes, for people to ask hard questions, for people to come to uncomfortable answers in response to those hard questions. Universities lose a lot of their value if they can’t get to that anymore.”

Throughout his lecture, Whittington discussed the importance of having an open environment conducive to what he called “robust intellectual inquiry,” which means issues of free speech and universities are intimately connected both for that reason and for the danger of allowing universities any power that could be used to suppress speech.

“I think campus officials will do what they’ve always done, which is try to suppress speech they find particularly embarrassing and that they think might provoke public controversy and might draw unwanted news attention,” Whittington said. “That will stretch across a wide range of different conversations. That will sometimes mean silencing speakers on the right but also mean silencing speakers on the left. It will sometimes mean silencing minority speakers and sometimes it will mean silencing other kinds of speakers.”

An attack on any kind of free speech, Whittington said, is an attack on all free speech; a speaker with views outside the norm can still have something to contribute to the conversation. Yet controversy for controversy’s sake, Whittington said, should never be the goal of inviting a speaker to campus.

“When we’re making decisions about whom to invite to campus to speak, the goal should be neither to stack the deck with our closest allies nor to sprinkle in the most extreme provocateurs,” Whittington said. “The goal should be to make available to the campus community at large thoughtful representatives of serious ideas.”

That responsibility to choose speakers wisely lies with both faculty and students since students deserve to have power over the debates in which they engage. Whittington said protest is a form of intellectual exploration and advocacy and that students have a right to protest, as long as their efforts do not destroy the free speech of others.

“It’s perfectly reasonable to protest those ideas, to complain about those ideas, to have a public conversation about whether or not the given speaker has good ideas or bad ideas, whether or not it’s a good idea to invite a given speaker to campus and the like,” Whittington said. “But disruptions, disinvitations, tearing down signs, throwing out papers are all efforts to quash the communication of ideas and shut down the free exchange of ideas among students and others on the college campus rather than to advance that free exchange of ideas by advancing better ideas in their stead.”

Ultimately, Whittington argued, university administration, faculty and students must allow themselves to be challenged in order to continue the debates integral to the purpose of the university.

“If students are to prepare themselves to critically engage the wide range of perspectives and problems they will encounter in the world across their lifetimes, they must learn to grapple with and critically examine ideas they find difficult and offensive,” Whittington said. “ … Recognizing and respecting the principles of free speech is challenging, but there is no alternative if we are dedicated to pursue truth. And ultimately, to pursue truth is the noble and important mission of the modern American university.”

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