Click here if you don’t see subscription options
James T. KeaneJanuary 26, 2018
(Creative Commons)

Free Speech on Campusby Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman

Yale University Press. 216p $26

University administrators these days often find themselves trying to navigate between two dangerous extremes: the Scylla of policing obsessively the expression of ideas so as to avoid triggering any university students who may feel unsafe, and the Charybdis of giving license to student groups to invite monsters like Richard Spencer or Milo Yiannopoulos to campus. The former can lead to the censorship of legitimate speech; the latter can turn campuses into unwitting forums for openly fascist rhetoric designed to torment the disadvantaged. Is there a way to steer between the two?

Not really, argue Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman in Free Speech on Campus. Steer as close to Charybdis as you can and hope for the best. Freedom of expression is close to an all-or-nothing proposition by their lights: Even the best-intentioned attempts to keep students safe from harm inevitably lead to censorship and coddled minds. Throughout history, from Reformation-era attempts to monitor printing presses all the way to the creation of “safe spaces” on our college campuses, they argue, censorship inevitably hurts those it is designed to help.

Freedom of expression is close to an all-or-nothing proposition by their lights.

The authors, legal scholars and academics both, fear that “students’ support for basic free speech principles is dramatically eroding” and that “university leaders are well versed in providing full-throated defenses of civility and tolerance, but their arguments for protecting the expression of all ideas, even those considered offensive and hateful, are often less clear or convincing.” While Chemerinsky and Gillman draw the line at physical threats and harassment based on sex, race, creed or sexual orientation, they otherwise recommend that universities defend freedom of speech at almost any cost.

Their most valuable contribution to this national conversation is a clear and coherent summary of the issues involved in free-speech debates. Accounts of controversies past and present are fair and nuanced, and consistently give the salient points in layperson’s terms. Accepting the authors’ arguments and their capacious willingness to tolerate offense, however, will be a hard sell for educators increasingly accustomed to a world of safe spaces and speech codes.

The latest from america

For James Joyce, humanity’s faulty condition “is happy because faults, errors, mistakes and misunderstandings” are the birth of comedy, writes Gabrielle Carey in a new biography.
Joshua HrenJune 14, 2024
In 1975, Leo O'Donovan, S.J., a theologian and former student of Karl Rahner, reviewed the renowned German theologian Jürgen Moltmann’s ‘The Crucified God.’ Jürgen Moltmann died on June 3, 2024, at the age of 98.
Books about World War II are ubiquitous in the nonfiction section, but "Hitler's American Gamble" is the rare recent work with a genuinely new contribution to make, not just to our understanding of the past but also to our understanding of the present.
Lauren Groff's new novel inverts Defoe’s "Robinson Crusoe" by casting a girl—and only briefly, much later on in the novel, the woman—as its heroine.
Joseph PeschelMay 16, 2024