Free Speech on Campus

reviewed by Timothy Reese Cain - September 21, 2018

coverTitle: Free Speech on Campus
Author(s): Sigal R. Ben-Porath
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 0812250079, Pages: 136, Year: 2017
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The seeming spate of high-profile controversies involving campus speech and the concurrent claims that free expression no longer exists at U.S. colleges and universities have brought with them a number of books delving into First Amendment speech rights, the problems with censorship on college campuses, and the challenges of educating students in contested times (e.g., Chemerinsky & Gillman, 2017; Palfry, 2017; Whittingham, 2018). Sigal R. Ben-Porath’s Free Speech on Campus is a thoughtful and insightful entry into this conversation. In it, Ben-Porath uses examples from events at Middlebury College, the Universities of Chicago and Missouri, Yale University, and elsewhere to consider underlying issues and administrative responses. She also offers an alternative framing that could protect free speech rights while simultaneously valuing and including members of the campus community who might otherwise feel threatened, silenced, or disenfranchised. While recognizing the power of dramatic events both at the campus-level and on the national stage, she highlights that such occurrences are actually quite rare given the scope of U.S. higher education; much more common are student protests and events that fail to garner newspaper headlines. She argues that campus speech issues are normally similar to the ones at her own institution, the University of Pennsylvania, which bound the book. They involve multiple stakeholders working toward shared goals of supporting diverse speech on political and social issues without impinging on the larger goals of the university.

Many of the recent considerations of campus speech emphasize legal issues or make pleas for civility, but Ben-Porath does neither. Instead she argues that legal approaches based on the First Amendment are insufficient on college campuses due to the unique roles and special importance of higher education. Academic freedom, which is both broader and narrower than a legalist view of free speech, is a central value of higher education and provides further guidance because of its emphasis on open inquiry and expression geared toward knowledge production and transmission. As Ben-Porath appropriately notes, “this inquiry is most vibrant, most broad, and ultimately most successful when all are able to participate in it not only formally but also substantially” (p. 69). Moreover, she contends that relying on civility can impinge on free speech in ways that are counterproductive and can further dis-privilege members of already marginalized populations. The norms of civility can be used to maintain current power relations and to discredit views expressed with understandable emotion. As such, relying on civility as the standard for campus speech, for example, privileges calm articulations of racist beliefs over emotional responses to such expressions. Rather than prioritizing order, “much more room should be made for messy, inappropriate, challenging, and sometimes uncivil expression” (p. 71).

Ben-Porath offers “inclusive freedom” as an alternative framework for handling issues of campus speech:

An inclusive freedom framework for speech on campus takes seriously the importance of a free and open exchange as a necessary condition for the pursuit of knowledge and as a contributing condition to the development of civic and democratic capacities. It lends similar weight to the related demand that all members of the campus community be able to participate in this free and open exchange. (p. 37)

Central to inclusive freedom are considerations of harm, claims of which are often used as a basis to limit or censor speech. While recognizing that speech can in fact be harmful and that the harms can build upon each other and disproportionately affect members of underserved groups, Ben-Porath rejects “no platform” approaches which deny controversial speakers the opportunity to air their views. Rather, institutions must proactively create cultures that welcome all members of their campus communities and ensure that all are able to fully participate in campus and public dialogues. To Ben-Porath, instead of protecting students from offensive speech, colleges and universities must create opportunities for students to develop their own voices and acquire abilities that will allow them counter such speech. Moreover, she astutely points out that appealing to censorship neglects “the historical reality that censorship might harm vulnerable groups” (p. 43). Yet while clearly arguing for expansive speech rights, she cautions throughout that many on our campuses, especially women, racially and sexually minoritized people, and first-generation students, do not now possess them. They are silenced in the face of larger societal and campus pressures. Such silencing is, of course, harmful to those students, but it also impinges upon the ability of colleges and universities to undertake their very missions of inquiry and education.

As part of her discussion of protections from harm, Ben-Porath draws on Eamonn Callan’s (2016) work to distinguish between dignitary safety and intellectual safety. The former relates to a person’s equal membership in a community and ability to fully contribute to its discussions. The latter involves protection from viewpoints and ideas with which one might disagree. While dignitary safety is necessary for true free expression by all members of a campus community, intellectual safety undercuts the basic ideas and purposes of a university. Students must be confronted with new and difficult ideas. The challenge is to ensure that “speech on campus be protected as broadly as possible while aiming to ensure that all members of the campus community members are recognized—and know that they are recognized—as members in good standing” (p. 56).

Following an overview of campus speech concerns and a preliminary sketch of what inclusive freedom entails, Ben-Porath uses and expands this framework in her discussions of broader campus and then classroom speech. Included in the former is a short–perhaps too short–consideration of online speech and both the difficulties and dangers of policing it. Ben-Porath argues in favor of safe spaces and identity group affiliation while calling on institutions to create avenues for students to connect with each other and with ideas beyond their identity groups. She asserts that versions of so-called trigger warnings can be useful pedagogical tools that can alert students to potential challenges, but she rejects sensitivity training and bias reporting mechanisms as ineffective interference. She contends that academic freedom, along with the intellectual and civic goals of higher education, should help guide classroom interactions. Faculty should engage with controversial topics and even with unscientific student opinions rather than stifling them. While stringent speech regulations in classrooms are inappropriate, looser classroom guidelines and planning can facilitate successful classroom interactions around challenging topics. She concludes with a brief set of proposals to help achieve inclusive freedom, including through the example of “open expression monitors” on her own campus (p. 103). Throughout, she emphasizes that the imperative for free expression is conjoined with the imperative that all students are valued and welcomed into the conversation.

There is a great deal to like about this slim volume, including its reasoned and articulate defense of both free speech and of the diverse students who populate our college campuses. Its rejection of simplistic and demeaning portrayals of students and its calls to focus our approaches on students’ potential contributions to campus conversations rather than their vulnerabilities are valuable. So, too, are its assertions that “harms to dignity… are not randomly distributed” (p. 58) and that many of the most pressing challenges to campus speech come from outside groups and governmental actors, not from liberal students. Yet while the framework is useful and the call for institutions to look to their values as they proactively consider how they will ensure free speech is warranted, those hoping for clear advice regarding how to actually achieve inclusive freedom might be disappointed. Ben-Porath, for example, implores universities to respond to provocateurs in ways other than censoring, but does not offer clear guidance on exactly what they should do. Perhaps, though, hoping for clear directions would be misguided. As Ben-Porath notes, both institutional differences and the evolving challenges to campus speech preclude one-size-fits all answers. More importantly, at the heart of this book is a call for fundamental institutional change, which is certainly not a simple undertaking. “Building a campus culture that expresses commitment to equality is an ongoing task that will not be resolved by quick fixes” (p. 65).


Callan, E. (2006). Education in safe and unsafe spaces. Philosophical Inquiry in Education, 24, 64–78.

Chemerinsky, E., & Gillman, H. (2017). Free speech on campus. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Palfry, J. (2017). Safe spaces, brave places: Diversity and free expression in education. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Whittingham, K. E. (2018). Speak freely: Why universities must defend free speech. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 21, 2018 ID Number: 22512, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 5:42:46 AM

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