Skip to main content

What We Talk About When We Talk About Free Speech

Do overblown fears of the First Amendment's demise undermine healthy debate?
Students walking across the campus at Harvard University.

Students walking across the campus at Harvard University.

If you've ever judged your own behavior according to an idealized standard, you're hardly alone. In his recently published book, As If: Idealization and Ideals, New York University philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah explores the common habit of idealization, which he calls a "useful untruth." His aim is to demonstrate how the human tendency to idealize any situation—which might create a sense of failure—ultimately ends up having a productive impact on the way we pursue knowledge.

This process is especially prevalent in the sciences, where it is not uncommon for a single explanation to be reached through theories that are inconsistent with each other. (This is especially true in physics.) As a matter of pure fact, this inconsistency presents a problem. But acceptance of an idealization downplays the inconsistency while allowing scientists to continue to seek knowledge despite the existence of a messier and more confusing reality. If you've ever been in a tight spot and decided to proceed "as if" conditions were different than they were, then you have engaged in a version of productive idealization.

Appiah's thesis not only helps scientists better understand the nature of their work. It also has broad applications to the debates that animate public life, few of which have been as intense as those surrounding free speech on college campuses. On the one hand, Americans—academics in particular—broadly accept and support an idealized notion of free speech: one that unambiguously and universally commits us to the proposition that no expression, however offensive, should be stymied. On the other hand, we stymie expressions all the time. Indeed, we routinely choose (or are forced) to avoid using certain language, or expressing controversial opinions, because the particular social context renders those expressions uncomfortable, rude, or taboo.

As If: Idealization and Ideals.

As If: Idealization and Ideals.

How to make sense of this inconsistency? When a specific situation (say, students at a college that has suffered racial controversies banning a speaker known to be a white supremacist) falls short of the idealization (that of absolute free speech), our best choice is to preserve the simple idealization of free speech and forge ahead with the limitations we see fit to make. We should do this because, false as the idealization might be, it remains the best way to for debates to proceed in a manner that advances our understanding of the way free speech operates on the ground, distinct from theory. Much as scientists might ignore theoretical inconsistencies and continue to uncover provisional solutions, so participants in the ongoing negotiation over where to place limits on personal expression still operate according to the "useful untruth" of idealized free speech.

The upshot to this distinction is that we may need to rethink how we evaluate free speech debates on campus. Given the inevitable disparity between ideal and reality, it makes more sense to ask why, in specific contexts, free speech is contested to begin with, rather than leap to a catastrophic conclusion—as we too often do—about free speech's imminent demise. What's often portrayed as the "death of free speech" is usually a healthy case of well-intentioned citizens having a genuine debate over, a la Appiah, the world as it is against the world as we think it ought to be.

We are better off, in other words, exploring the fine grain of that debate rather than getting distracted by the unavoidable difference between ideal and reality.


Today's professors overwhelmingly endorse the First Amendment as a cultural ideal. Their position on the matter is significant because, as Samuel Abrams wrote last month in The American Interest, "Professors, who remain fixtures on campus while students just pass through, set the tone for many facets of collegiate life both in and out of the classroom."

As far as professors are concerned, the First Amendment can rest easy. Recently published research demonstrates that 93 percent of faculty agree with the statement "[U]niversity life requires that people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other." About 70 percent support the more sweeping claim that a university should always foster "an open environment where students are exposed to all types of speech."

If the idealization of free speech thrives among the professoriate, the context in which academics exercise that speech remains equally significant. What's rarely noted about free speech on campus is that professors, protected by academic freedom, have safer (although not perfect) access to the principle of free speech than employees in other sectors of the economy. At public universities in particular, administrators often have little power to penalize professors for distasteful or highly controversial speech. Public employees outside of academia are routinely fired for toxic Internet rants, but professors can proceed unscathed. A recent example might include Frenso State University's Randa Jarrar, who made headlines, and brought more attention to her own work, for calling recently deceased Barbara Bush a "witch" and "an amazing racist."

Such relatively privileged access to free speech makes the campus an ideal venue to explore the First Amendment at work. Notably, it means any effort to squelch an expression on campus demands special scrutiny—not necessarily because it represents an attack on free speech per se but rather because it may be a circumstantial, even thoughtful and necessary, response to language or opinions whose implications are deemed by a significant cohort of objectors unwarranted. A campus conflict over language is more often than not an instructive situation whereby the "as if" fiction is temporarily put aside, forcing us make democratic and difficult choices about which expressions are appropriate under certain provisional conditions, and which ones are not. How are we doing on that front?

Current tension over the use of the "N word" in the classroom provides an apt case in point for exploring that question. Some professors altogether refuse to use the word. At the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, Christina Berchini, a professor of English education, denounces any usage of the N word because it was, as she said recently, "created to enslave, oppress, and disenfranchise people of color." She sites Ta Nehisi-Coates' belief that, "when you're white in this country, you're taught that everything belongs to you." There is no room in her classroom for that horrible designation.

But other professors, such as Carolyn Rouse, a Princeton University anthropologist (who is black), believe that using the actual word is required to explore the nature of hate speech. Defending this position, she told Inside Higher Ed, "Our goal is to get students to move beyond their common sense to see how culture has shaped their beliefs and emotions. If our students leave our classes knowing exactly what they knew when they entered, then we didn't do our jobs." Loathing the word as much as Berchini does, Rouse nonetheless anticipates a more productive educational outcome when the word is spoken in its entirety.

This is a legitimate disagreement. Both positions are defensible and—good thing—the idealization of free speech, while not lived up as a theory, has gone nowhere. As these opinions mingle in the public sphere, a far more subtle process is at work than an attack on the First Amendment—namely a negotiation between "as if" and "and is." Berchini's critics might point out that her position on the N word forbids reading aloud William Faulkner, Mark Twain, or Flannery O'Connor, while Rouse's critics can highlight a statement made by the president of Southern Connecticut States' Black Student Union: "students of color should not be subjected to faculty and staff using racial slurs during the process of their education." And then a debate, one supported by the First Amendment, can, under consideration of such factors, ensue.

The fact that one side, at least in this context and for now, will eventually have to either hear hateful language or be prevented (either through regulation or social pressure) from using it in public is the inevitable outcome of not realizing an idealization. But that's not the death of free speech; to the contrary, it's free speech at work.