Whittington on Free Speech on Campus
Remarks on Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech by Keith Whittington
When it comes to trigger warnings and safe spaces, outside speaker invitations and student protest limitations, and to faculty speaking as experts in the classroom and private citizens in the public square, what does defending free speech entail? Whittington has wise answers to these questions, and every conclusion he reaches, I endorse; we are quite literally on the same team. Those answers are developed in the second part of his book. The first part—chapter 2—is where the foundation for those answers is laid, and that is what I want to examine: Whittington’s argument for the thesis, stated in the book’s title, that “universities must defend free speech.”
In outline the argument is simple. First, "at heart, the mission of a university is to produce and disseminate knowledge”; second, defending free speech is essential to doing that successfully. No free speech, no (or much diminished) production and dissemination of knowledge. In the spirit of open inquiry I will here cast on this argument a critical eye.
Whittington’s first premise I will grant and pass over, though it merits discussion; the idea that “universities are primarily for producing and disseminating knowledge” is, I suspect, less a settled fact we may appeal to than an ideal we will have to fight for. The heart of the argument is the second premise. Why think that "free speech is critical to the scholarly project”? Why is an environment where restrictions on what may be said are very few, required for the production and dissemination of knowledge? Whittington’s answers are not new, but that does not mean they are bad, or not worth rehearsing.
Those answers are—Whittington is up front about this—the ones John Stuart Mill presented for free speech in On Liberty. Whittington endorses Mill’s arguments, I think, too uncritically.
The first one Whittington calls the argument from humility: