Book Review: “Free Speech on Campus”

Hardly a day goes by without a free-speech controversy on college and university campuses.   An outside speaker is disinvited, a student faces punishment for speech on social media, a campus erupts over offensive speech, or a professor suffers discipline for off-campus expression.

Free Speech on Campus (Yale University Press, 2017) by college administrators Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman offers guidance on “New Censorship” percolating around the country.   This “New Censorship” includes a passionate defense of equality principles, an at-times overzealous U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, and sensitivities to an inclusive learning environment that supports such things as trigger warnings, safe spaces, and heightened awareness of micro-aggressions.

The book not only places perspective on free-speech disputes on college campuses, but also it offers a primer on fundamental First Amendment, free-speech principles.   The book compellingly explains the importance of the First Amendment and its guarantee of freedom of speech, including that it is inextricably intertwined with freedom of thought, necessary for democratic self-government, and needed to battle governmental censorship.

The authors’ “central thesis” is that college and universities must never censor ideas, no matter how offensive, obnoxious, or repugnant.  One chapter deals exclusively with hate speech, a phenomenon that has led to speech codes, overzealous policing of speech, and at times restrictions on academic freedom.

Ultimately, they write that “protecting hate speech is necessary” because the alternative is much worse – governmental censorship of ideas, a concept anathema to a free society.  They quote Justice John Marshall Harlan II’s beautifully written majority opinion in Cohen v. California (1971): “Indeed, governments might soon seize upon the censorship of particular words as a convenient guise for banning the expression of unpopular views.”

The treatment of these complex free-speech issues rests in capable hands, as Chemersinky is arguably the pre-eminent constitutional law scholar of modern times.  The author of a leading Con law textbook, he has argued First Amendment cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The book’s last chapter “What’s at Stake” warns that “the effort to create inclusive learning environments cannot proceed at the expense of free speech and academic freedom.”  They call for a “renewed appreciation” of First Amendment values on college campuses.

Amen!   Anyone desiring more knowledge on the nuances of free-speech law as applied to college censorship should read this book.

David L. Hudson, Jr. is the author of several books on the First Amendment, including First Amendment: Freedom of Speech and Let the Students Speak!: A History of the Fight for Free Expression at American Schools.




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