Book Review of ‘Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech’

Academic Freedom, Book Review, Education

By: Allyson Mower

keith whittingtonIf you’re looking for a good overview of free speech on college campuses, I highly recommend Speak Freely by Keith Whittington, published by Princeton University Press this month. The book is 232 pages and distributed in print and e-book for $24.95. It offers a timely and very sophisticated treatment of free speech and academic freedom on American college and university campuses. Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton University, provides several examples of free speech-related issues and offers helpful commentary, perspective, and interpretations of such events from a conceptual basis.

The book is organized into four chapters all of which are very accessible and readable. I especially liked the introduction and the way Whittington used a historical story to draw in the reader because it could have very easily had occurred as recently as last month. I had expected to have to endure a polemical read, but Whittington does a great job of staying neutral in order to more fully inform the reader. I certainly appreciate this approach. The opening chapter provides a concise and relevant history of the development of higher education in the United States. This sets the stage for understanding the ideals at play within the modern functioning of colleges and universities: “learning what there is to be learned” (pg. 14).  

Chapter two helps place the idea of free speech and its connection to universities in context of the U.S. Constitution. Whittington does this for the purpose of highlighting his main point that American universities need to protect free speech not because the ideal is part of a body of constitutional law active within a democratic society, but because without free speech, knowledge cannot be advanced by those that universities employ to do so. Chapter three helpfully reminds readers that free speech has always been a topic of discussion, debate, and rallying on college campuses. This chapter also includes Whittington’s approach to providing perspective on trigger warnings, safe spaces, and campus climate. By far the longest chapter, it offers an excellent overview of current free speech issues happening at a range of colleges and universities. Chapter four delves into the idea of viewpoint diversity, but primarily from a scholarly communication perspective with a more minor focus on campuses.     

Speak FreelySpeak Freely is light on suggestions on how to address any curtailment of speech on campuses, but I suppose that would need to be another work. Whittington discusses the importance of members of a campus community making choices as a form of intellectual commitment in order to sustain an environment for free inquiry and learning. To create the right kind of learning and scholarly environment is no easy task. Whittington’s book is one source to help lead members of a campus community to make better informed choices regarding the ideals of free speech and expression. He also offers several titles for further reading and helpfully categorizes them into broad terms such as life of the American mind, history of higher education in America, and contemporary challenges for universities and colleges. It serves as a user-friendly guide for those wanting to learn more. I plan on pursuing further Whittington’s list of reads that deal with the “tension” (Whittington’s term) between inclusiveness and free speech.


Allyson MowerAllyson Mower, MA, MLIS is head of Scholarly Communication & Copyright at the University of Utah Marriott Library. She’s very curious about curiosity, what drives people to uncover information, and how libraries of all types create demand for knowledge. As a tenured faculty member, she researches the history of academic freedom — a kind of intellectual freedom — and the history of authorship and scholarly communication at the institution. She provides the U of U community and the general public with information, tools, and services related to both copyright and publishing. Allyson was a Library Journal Mover & Shaker in 2008, was nominated as a 2012 Society for Scholarly Publishing Emerging Leader, and served as the U of U Academic Senate President in 2014. Find her on Twitter @allysonmower.

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