Princeton Professor gives Constitution Day Lecture on Free Speech

Ethan Bachand ’22

News Editor

 

On Wednesday, September 19, Professor Keith Whittington from Princeton University spoke to students and faculty in Rehm Library as a part of the Charles Carroll Program’s line of speakers. To commemorate Constitution Day, which occured two days earlier, the talk was centered around the debate involving free speech on college campuses.

Professor Whittington is the author of the book “Speak Freely: Why Colleges Must Defend Free Speech.” The call to action embodied in the title was a consistent theme of the talk, advising that our core values as an academic institution of higher learning are threatened by limits on free speech.

The beginning of the lecture focused on laying out a conceptual understanding of the purpose of higher education. Professor Whittington stated that the core value of universities is to obtain a greater understanding of the world around us, which requires students to be able to express their own ideas. Speaking after the talk, he said, “I think free speech is related to the cornerstone of American higher education, because the cornerstone is ultimately the pursuit of truth, and then freedom of speech is a core component of how you pursue that.”

Throughout the talk, Mr. Whittington cited different examples of free speech controversy that create the paradox that sits in front of us today: where do we draw the line on what is acceptable without being biased? Other topics included restrictions that universities attempt to place on the student body, as well as how much free speech university officials should be granted.

The audience was able to ask questions following the presentation, with both students and faculty participating. Some topics included compelled speech based on a university’s viewpoint as well as what is constitutionally permitted to be censored or not.

Looking into the future, Professor Whittington talked about what he sees in the coming years for free speech on college campuses, saying, “I’m optimistic. I think about the future, and I think it’s very hard to know empirically what the trajectory is,” he said. “I think there are some people who seem to be very confident that they know what the trends are and I just don’t think we have enough data to actually have a very firm grasp of what the trends are.”

However, the professor does not believe there is an end in sight to the debate. Continuing his thought, he stated that “I tend to think of this as a perpetual problem, as a recurring problem. We constantly come back to these debates and so it is important to talk about these things and continue to talk about them. I think there are genuine forces in American society in general, as well as on college campuses, that would favor a much more restrictive intellectual environment on college campuses. From my perspective, it is important to then push back against that. And I’m optimistic that more liberal forces are going to win that battle, but I think its a genuine battle in this case.”

Speaking about what it means to come talk at the College of the Holy Cross, Professor Whittington stated, “I really appreciate the opportunity. This was a book I wrote in order for it to be read, in order for the opportunity to go out and talk to students and members of the general public about these kinds of issues that I think are important. I appreciate being able to talk to them and I particularly appreciate being able to come to a place like the College of the Holy Cross which does have a somewhat distinct mission.”

In addition to the talk that was presented by Professor Whittington, two more speakers are lined up through the Carroll Program for the semester. The next is National Review columnist David French on October 2, followed by Daniel Ziblatt from Harvard on October 23.

 

Quotes:

Q:What does it mean to you to come and speak about your most recent book at Holy Cross?

A: “I really appreciate the opportunity. This was a book I wrote in order for it to be read, in order for the opportunity to go out and talk to students and members of the general public about these kinds of issues that I think are important. I appreciate being able to talk to them and I particullary appreciate being able to come to a place like the College of the Holy Cross which does have somewhat distinct mission, its different from a place like Princeton, and so its useful for me to hear about those differences and have thse conversations because I have learned a lot by talking to students and faculty at a range of institutions about the kind of issues on their own campuses. I continue to learn more about it and it shapes how I talk about these things and how I write about them in the future.”

 

Q: Talking about the status of free speech on college campus in American today, where do you think we’re going? Do you think we’re going to a more resricted mindset or do you think this continued effort to express yourself is going to overcome such efforts?

A: “I’m optomistic. I think about the future, and I think its very hard to know emperically what the trajectory is. I think there are some people who seem to be very confident that they know what the trends are and I just don’t think we have enough data to actually have a very firm grasp of what the trends are. Instead I tend to think of this as a perpetual problem, as a reoccuring problem. We constintely come back to these debates and so it is important to talk about these things and continue to talk about them. I think there are geniune forces in american society in general as well as on college campuses that would favor a much more restrictive intellectual environment on college campuses. From my perspective, it is important to then push back against that. And I’m optomistic that more liberal forces are going to win that battle, but I think its a genuine battle in this case. You could easily wake up and ten years from now and Universities are much more restricted spaces then they are now if we aren’t careful.”

 

Q: So do you think free speech is the cornerstone of higher education in America?

A: “I think free speech is related to the cornerstone of American higher education, because the cornerstone is ultimately the pursuit of truth, and then freedom of speech is a core component of how you puruse that. I think it can be framed somewhat differently  because I think

 

Photo by Hui Li.

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