“Free speech is an aberration.” So begins a magisterial 2016 essay by David Bromwich in the London Review of Books. Its social or political enshrinement is the exception, not the rule; everywhere, censorship and its primordial revulsion from blasphemy stalk the perimeters of acceptable speech. (In adumbrating the connection between blasphemy and censorship, Bromwich relies on the legal scholar Leonard Levy’s Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred, From Moses to Salman Rushdie.) Nevertheless, Bromwich goes on to say, “The freedom to speak one’s mind is a physical necessity, not a political and intellectual piece of good luck; to a thinking person, the need seems to be almost as natural as breathing.”

The claim is historical. The type of person for whom free speech feels like a physical need appeared at a certain time and place, enabled by certain kinds of institutions — including, in our time, the university. According to Keith Whittington, today those institutions must be reminded of commitments they’ve let lapse. As Whittington, the chair of the academic committee of the newly founded Academic Freedom Alliance, explains to Academe’s blog, “I suppose the Steven Salaita episode at the University of Illinois was a wake-up call to me on how likely universities were to cave under pressure when faculty speech became the source of a public controversy.” (And at the Review, Wesley Yang broke the story of the AFA’s founding.)

Not everyone is convinced that organizations like the AFA are necessary. In her essay for this week’s Review, Jennifer Ruth argues that, while “we must support the academic freedom of people we disagree with,” such groups are stalking horses for the politics of the conservative donor class. She describes an ugly incident at her own institution, Portland State University, in which, as she puts it, two professors “outsourc[ed] the harassment of a colleague” to a mob of online trolls. Other say that the real threat comes not from campus activists but from conservative state governments, which, as our Nell Gluckman describes, seem increasingly willing to interfere in university curricula. (For his part, Whittington, of the AFA, lists “state legislatures … considering proposals to restrict what can be taught in a college classroom” as an area of concern.)

The smoke of the culture wars risks obscuring some real differences in principle. As Salaita explained a couple of years ago in “My Life as a Cautionary Tale,” “I do question the wisdom of allowing a civil liberty to dominate notions of freedom.” On this view, free speech (as expressed in the institution of academic freedom) achieves a range of positive goods (it “preserves democracy,” “emboldens research,” and “facilitates faculty governance”) but should not be seen as an end in itself. Bromwich’s “thinking person,” for whom “the freedom to speak one’s mind is a physical necessity,” would presumably disagree. These are fundamental problems; they will not evaporate with the passing of the current campus dust-ups.

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I’m always hoping to hear from you — write to opinion@chronicle.com.

Yours,
Len Gutkin