What Speech Is Really ‘Worthy’?

To the Editor:

Jason N. Blum (“Don’t Bow to Blowhards,” The Chronicle Review, September 3) argues that although colleges and universities should embrace freedom of speech, they should work in particular to foster and protect “worthy speech” — that is, speech that meets basic standards of rationality, evidential support, and civility. They should not offer a platform to those who routinely flout such standards, and thus they may justifiably exclude demagogues and abusive provocateurs.

As a set of guidelines for college- and university-sponsored events, these recommendations are reasonable, even commendable (although recognized student organizations on campus arguably ought to have wider berth in their choice of speakers, and public institutions are bound by the First Amendment). Oddly, though, Blum neglects to consider how his recommendations might apply to the cases he mentions at the beginning of his article.

By any reasonable application of his criteria, both Charles Murray’s and Heather MacDonald’s views fall squarely on the side of “worthy speech.” That is, whatever one thinks of their particular arguments, they present their views rationally, appeal to relevant evidence, and express themselves civilly. But that was obviously not good enough for those who acted to forcibly bar their speech at Middlebury College and at Claremont McKenna College, respectively. Either Blum is not facing up to the reality that even “worthy” speech is in danger of being shut down on campuses today, or else his failure to differentiate Murray and MacDonald from Milo Yiannopoulos and the other presumed unworthies mentioned at the outset of his article signals that his conception of “worthy speech” is a narrow one indeed.

Blum is rightly alarmed by the efforts of the Trump administration and its supporters to degrade the standards of our public discourse. But he is mistaken in his implication that the threats to rational discourse — “worthy speech” — lie entirely off campus.

Darryl Wright
Professor of Philosophy
Harvey Mudd College

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