Freedom of speech: The pursuit of ideas and truth on college campuses - Activate World

Freedom of speech: The pursuit of ideas and truth on college campuses

freedom of speech, pursuit of truth

Keith E. Whittington, Professor of Politics, Princeton University

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University. He is the author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech. He is the author of Political Foundations of Judicial Supremacy: The Presidency, the Supreme Court, and Constitutional Leadership in U.S. History; Constitutional Interpretation: Textual Meaning, Original Intent, and Judicial Review; and Constitutional Construction: Divided Powers and Constitutional Meaning; and coeditor of Congress and the Constitution and The Oxford Handbook of Law and Politics; and has published widely on American constitutional theory and development, judicial politics, the presidency, and federalism.

Dr. Whittington is currently working on a political history of the judicial review of federal statutes and preparing, with Howard Gillman and Mark Graber, a book of cases and materials on American constitutionalism. His work has won the C. Herman Pritchett Award for best book in law and courts and the J. David Greenstone Award for best book in politics and history. He has been a John M. Olin Foundation Faculty Fellow and American Council of Learned Societies Junior Faculty Fellow, and a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Texas School of Law. He received a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University.

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Freedom of Speech: The Pursuit of Ideas and Truth on College Campuses

Free speech on university campuses is approached inconsistently. While some colleges get it right, others limit free speech in governing what is appropriate. College campuses are a place to pursue ideas and truth, and we explore how we can protect and encourage both ideals. Encouraging better thinking and engagement are vital to a better society.

Join our conversation with Keith E. Whittington, Professor of Politics, Princeton University. He is the author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech.

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Freedom of Speech: The Pursuit of Ideas and Truth on College Campuses

Keith E. Whittington, Professor of Politics, Princeton University

Season 2, Episode 5

Jon Mertz:          00:02         Welcome to the Activate World podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought. We’re excited to have Keith Whittington with us today. He’s the William Nelson Cromwell professor of politics at Princeton University, and a leader authority on American Constitutional theory and law. He’s also the author of the book Speak Freely,Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech. Professor Whittington, welcome to Activate World. Let’s dive into our conversation. What is the mission of a university?

K. Whittington:     00:41          I think that the core mission of the university is to be the advancement of human knowledge and then communication of what we’ve learned to others. That includes both students and scholars, but also includes the more general public. I think not everyone necessarily shares that idea about what the core commitments of the university is, but I think that’s the basic commitment of what a modern university is all about. Then there are other things that supplement that. There are things that grow out of that and benefit from that core mission, but if we give up on trying as best we can to pursue the truth and communicate the truth as best we understand it, then we’ve given up on the central feature of what makes universities attractive.

Jon Mertz:          01:26          It seems like universities are called upon to both preserve that freedom of speech, but also create a safe space to explore ideas. Can those two coexist?

K. Whittington:     01:38          I think they can, but there is some tension between them. Of course, the language they face is a controversial one. I would hope that universities are safe spaces precisely for the exploration of ideas. Part of what I have always found attractive about universities is part of why I wanted to make my career in a university, was that at their best, they can be places where ideas are taken very seriously, and people are willing to discuss ideas, including ideas that seem unconventional, that seem difficult, that seem out of the mainstream, but people are willing to hear them out, think about them carefully, and try to figure out what’s truthful about them and what’s wrong about them, and be able to try to weed out what’s wrong and while retaining as much as we can of what’s true.

K. Whittington:     02:26          It’s a difficult challenge to hold that space as being available for exploring controversial ideas. One of those challenges is the fact that a lot of controversial ideas are in fact bad ideas and wrong ideas. So, there’s a tension between universities being places where we’re seeking the truth and yet they’re also places in which people are free to articulate lots of bad ideas. But ultimately, the way in which we pursue the truth is by testing ideas, exploring ideas, considering ideas. That means we have to be open to the possibility that the things we think are already true are in fact wrong, so we have to be open to criticism, we have to be open to exploring new ideas that on first impression, we may think are bad, but on more careful scrutiny, turns out that there’s something valuable there that we want to take away from them, while also recognizing that we’re gonna encounter lots of bad ideas, and the goal is to examine those ideas, recognize that they’re bad ideas, and ultimately to set them aside while trying to find the occasional good idea that we ought to cherish and hold close.

Jon Mertz:          03:38          You explore John Stuart Mill is your book, Speak Freely, and the three elements of speech that he talked about from humility, from arrogance, and from conviction. How do these three ideas relate to the freedom of speech at universities?

K. Whittington:     03:52          Yes, I find JohnStuart Mill very useful in thinking about these issues, in part because he’s particularly concerned with trying to explore why it is that freedom of speech,freedom of thought, tolerance of disagreeable ideas is nonetheless quite useful to us both as individuals, but also critically useful to us as a society. From his perspective, the only way we’re gonna make progress, the only way we’re going to build a better society is if we’re willing to listen to criticism,we’re willing to explore ideas and try to identify the best ideas and set aside the bad ideas. He’s writing really before the rise of modern universities in their modern form. He’s writing in the early 19th century. Universities as we know them really come into existence in the late 19th century. So, when he’s thinking about freedom of thoughts and freedom of speech, he’s often thinking about debating societies, public libraries, public square. He’s thinking about a much wider array of places in society where we express disagreements, but also ought to be open to hearing new and difficult ideas.

K. Whittington:     05:05         So, I think appreciating what Mills wants to emphasize about how society as a whole ought to be a place where we tolerate dissenting opinions, precisely because it’s sometimes good for us to hear those dissenting opinions, is critically important. Mills was also writing at a time when he’s confronting an increasingly democratizing society, and that was scary to many people. Mills worried not only about the fact that in a democracy you can have a majoritarian tyranny, in the sense that the majority can use the power of government to oppress minorities, but also in the sense that mass public opinion can become intolerant to individuals and to dissenters, and that people will feel a great deal of social and economic pressure to go along with a majority opinion, and people will feel empowered in that context to try to chastise and silence those that they find disagreeable and those who dissent from mainstream views.

K. Whittington:     06:08          He was very concerned then, trying to emphasize that as a society, we should not only try to construct a government that’s going to be respectful of free speech, but we should try to construct civil institutions that are capable of being homes to disagreements, being capable of being homes to people expressing ideas and opinions that are outside the mainstream, they’re unconventional, but nonetheless those are ideas that we can sometimes learn from. So, we should want to hear them.

Jon Mertz:          06:38          Wise advice. It’d be interesting to bring John Stuart Mill back in today’s environment and reengage in some of those ideas and principles. The public square has gotten a lot bigger, but his advice seems to resonate strongly still.

K. Whittington:     06:50          I think that’s right. The public square is large. One of the challenges of a very large public square is that there are lots of dissenting voices out there. That’s both good and bad. It’s bad in the sense that it also means there’s a lot of bad ideas floating around in public discourse, and you have to work your way through those bad ideas in order to try to find the good ideas, but it’s also extraordinarily good, in the sense that we are more open to a wider range of views. It’s easier for people to express themselves and get some attention than ever before. That allows for the possibility of learning from people that otherwise we might not have heard from. So, you want society to be open to that.

K. Whittington:     07:35          We always struggle with the fact that when we encounter those ideas, precisely because we find them disagreeable, they’re different ideas than our own. Sometimes they’re expressed in ways that we find uncomfortable, that our instinct is going to be to try to silence or suppress them or ignore them. That’s not a good instinct. That’s not a good instinct for us as people, but it’s also not a good instinct for us as a society because we ultimately benefit from hashing through those disagreements and finding a way to live together, and trying to work our way toward holding onto a broad array of good ideas, and trying to weed out as best we can the bad ideas.

Jon Mertz:          08:12          It goes back to the idea of critical inquiry and critical thinking. It seems developing those skill sets is as important as ever, now that we live in the digital age with an overwhelming amount of information.

K. Whittington:     08:24          It’s terribly important. I mean, I think we can overestimate the extent to which we’re being confronted with conspiracy theories and fake news and bad ideas. The world has always been filled with those things. People are always worried about people encountering those things and what will happen as a consequence. So, it’s long been the argument of the censor that if we aren’t aggressive about censoring things, people will be exposed to bad and dangerous ideas, and they won’t be able to tell the difference between what’s true and false, between what’s good and evil. So, you have to protect them from that.

K. Whittington:     08:59          I think the commitment for liberal ideals that have developed in the United States and other places since the 18th century has really been a commitment to thinking that people can be trusted to encounter bad and evil ideas, and eventually they work through that and come to better ideas, and the people need the freedom to do that. Universities are among the places where we ought to be helping to teach people how to do that, that people will have to be citizens in a democracy, and as citizens in a democracy they’re going to encounter bad and dangerous ideas. They’re going to encounter wild conspiracy theorizing and fake news. You can make the effort to try to suppress those things, but I think ultimately you’re going to be unsuccessful, so I think the better thing to do is try to teach people to deal with them more carefully, and to be skeptical about what it is they’re hearing, and to try to think through what they’re hearing in order to be able themselves to dismiss the cranks and pay more attention to the good ideas.

K. Whittington:     10:05          That’s a lifelong process that individuals living in a free society have to work through. It’s part of what we’re trying to get students to think about carefully on university campuses.

Jon Mertz:          10:17         You mentioned how universities are the incubator of freedom of speech and the pursuit of truth. The University of Chicago stands out in their approach to protecting freedom of speech on campuses. Are they the right example for other universities to follow?

K. Whittington:     10:30          I think it’s a very valuable example. We have periodically in universities needed to try to articulate what those core commitments to freedom of speech and open inquiry are. The Chicago statement is a recent version of that. I think it gets it just about right. I was very pleased, as my group of faculty at Princeton, who encourage our faculty to adopt those principles as our own as well. I think we were the second campus to do that. A number of other campuses have done it as well. I think it’s important for faculty across the country to really talk about those issues and hopefully recommit themselves to those ideas. I think adopting the Chicago statement as their own is a useful way to signal to the country at large, but also to members of the campus community that these are important academic values, and we ought to be committed to them.

K. Whittington:     11:25          I appreciate the fact that Chicago was out front on this. I think they are doing important things, both within talking about for their own campus, but also trying to shine a spotlight on this for higher education in the United States in general, but also for citizens and politicians and alumni and parents who don’t live and work on college campuses, but are sometimes disturbed by what they see on college campuses, and they should recognize that there are lots of people on college campuses that care a great deal about open inquiry and free speech, and we’re doing our best to try to advance those commitments on campuses across the country.

Jon Mertz:          12:03          Emotions often play a role in passionate conversations. Are there mitigating aspects of these emotions when it comes to free speech?

K. Whittington:     12:10          Well, I think there’s probably mitigating aspects in a couple ways, where we all take into account the fact that the kinds of subjects we need to grapple with as a society, as well as on college campuses are often emotional and painful, and people care deeply about them. One thing I think that advises us to do is to recognize the fact that people are sometimes going to be emotional and passionate, and we ought to be charitable in how we deal with people because of that. For example, I think often we’re a little too quick to want to adopt strong sanctions and discipline for students or faculty who we think have behaved badly in some of these debates and certainly it may be the case people sometimes behave badly. I think we should be somewhat charitable in how we deal with people who are very passionate about those things and recognize that they’re coming from a place of emotional commitment and try then to be accommodating, while also still insisting that there need to be certain boundaries if we’re going to have a productive conversation.

K. Whittington:     13:20          So, I think that we have to recognize it in that sense. I think it’s also true that, for example, as teachers in a classroom, it’s crucially important that we recognize that the topics that we try to deal with in the classroom are often very difficult, and students will react differently, but some of them will react very emotionally. We have to do our best to try to prepare students for the fact that they’re going to encounter difficult subject matters, and try to help them work their way through those. So, the fact that these things are emotionally painful is not a reason to turn away from them. Part of my worry about some of the movements surrounding universities these days is a desire on the part of some to think that we ought to turn away from them and that the rhetoric of safe spaces and trigger warnings, and the like, is sometimes suggestive that we should protect students from these difficult subjects.

Jon Mertz:          14:13          Are universities doing a better job at establishing that theirs is an environment to hear differing ideas, stories, and viewpoints?

K. Whittington:     14:20         Well, I’m hopeful, but I think universities could do much better on this front. I’ve been particularly pleased here at Princeton. Our president, Chris Eisgruber, is extremely good on these issues, and wants to take a leadership role in talking about the importance of free speech and intellectual diversity on college campuses. Princeton has adopted the book Speak Freely as its own summer reading for incoming freshman,as well as distributing it to other members of the campus community. I would hope that other universities have similar conversations. It’d be great if they also adopted the book and used it as well, because the point of my trying to write the book is to try to think through these principles in a fairly clearway and make them available for people to talk about them, and as well, disagree with them.

K. Whittington:     15:11          But I worry that universities don’t do as good a job as they could on this front. In part, I don’t think that we are always clear about what it is we’re trying to do on college campuses, so students often come in with the wrong set of expectations. They’re too focused on what universities can do for them economically. They’re too focused on how universities can be a fun and enjoyable experience. They’re not focused enough on the fact that the reason why universities are valuable is because they are places where we take ideas seriously. We need to be sending the message that controversial ideas is what we do here, and that people should expect to see them.

Jon Mertz:          15:53         What’s your view on social media and its role within freedom of speech?

K. Whittington:     15:58          I think social media creates lots of opportunities, but it has some clear disadvantages. I think it’s going to be a persistent challenge as to how we grapple with it. I have to admit, I avoided social media for a long time. I not too long along joined Twitter, in part because I thought there were important conversations taking place there that I wanted to follow and be a part of. I do increasingly think and want to emphasize to myself, as well as to others, that academics who have relevant expertise need to be engaging with the public and trying to communicate that expertise to a broader audience and do our part to try to bring better ideas into the public sphere. That means engaging people in lots of places, but including social media.

K. Whittington:     16:48          But social media has some clear downsides. It’s hard to explore difficult ideas under the kinds of constraints involved on social media. You’re talking to a very wide and diverse audience, so that makes it difficult sometimes to have productive and clear conversations because you can’t set up the baseline expectations about how those conversations ought to take place, or you can’t build on a set of background assumptions about what we already know and how we’re approaching certain ideas. That can make conversation very difficult. And it’s both the downside and the upside of social media that it allows people to very easily organize larger movements. Sometimes that can be really useful, and we’ve seen examples of that with the #MeToo movement, for example, but also in countries that are democratizing, for example, and they’ve been able to organize protest movements against oppressive regimes through social media. But it also can lead to herd mentality and shout down culture, and a culture of threats to people and intimidation and harassment that also comes with making it very easy to mobilize and organize large numbers of people.

K. Whittington:     18:02          I think we’re gonna have a very difficult time learning how to get the most we can out of those benefits while minimizing the downsides, because they do both tend to go together.

Jon Mertz:          18:12          What’s your best advice for college students in not only the pursuit of truth, but the pursuit of freedom of speech?

K. Whittington:     18:19          I think students should recognize when they’re arriving on campus that there are going to be people on the campus who disagree with them deeply and disagree with things that they take for granted, things that they care a great deal about, and that that’s part of what makes campus exciting, is the fact that you’re going to encounter people who are going to disagree with you. You should recognize going in that that will sometimes be a difficult thing to deal with, and yet that is also intellectually stimulating, and ultimately extremely beneficial. There are plenty of people running around on campus, as well as in society, who are not only have disagreements, but are disagreeable. Students have no obligations to seek out people who are simply disagreeable, but they should seek out opportunities to learn from people who think about things a little differently than they do, and try to figure out why they think about things differently and try to think about those ideas more carefully and use those people to help them think through those ideas more carefully.

Jon Mertz:          19:15          What’s your best advice for university professors and administrators as it relates to freedom of speech?

K. Whittington:     19:19          I think we have an important responsibility both on campus when dealing with other scholars and with students, but also when we’re engaged in the public sphere, to be as responsible in working with ideas as we can. Professors, like everybody else, can feel passionate about things. Sometimes that will get the best of us, but we do have a responsibility, I think, to try to be mature and careful when we engage the public, as well as when we engage students, to try to use the opportunities we have, both in the classroom and in our scholarship and elsewhere to do our best to try to shed light on difficult ideas, to help people understand those difficult ideas better, and to do our best not to add to the frustration and the mere fighting that takes place in society more generally, but to try to help people find ways to rise above that.

Jon Mertz:          20:17          Okay, great. Thank you so much, Professor Whittington. I appreciate your time, your insight. Your book Speak Freely is very timely and an important one for students and universities alike, to reengage and be that incubator for freedom of speech and the pursuit of truth.

K. Whittington:     20:31          Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Jon Mertz:          20:38          Listeners, we’d love to hear from you.

  • How do you think universities can balance the preservation of freedom of speech with creating safe spaces to explore ideas?
  • What’s been your experience at navigating the tension between the two at your university or workplace?

Send your perspective to me at Jon @ That’s Jon without an H, J-O-N @ Write it out or record it, send it my way. We want to hear and share your thoughts.

Be sure to tell your friends and colleagues about the Activate World podcast. Encourage them to subscribe, listen, and share from their favorite podcast platform, AppleGoogleSpotifyRadioPublic, and others.

Jon Mertz:          21:21          Activate World is a team endeavor. Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World, I’m Jon Mertz.

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