Free Speech and Toleration

A commitment to free speech and toleration are among the defining features of modern, liberal democracies. But as a historical matter, these commitments are relatively recent phenomena. And philosophically, neither is as clear-cut or unambiguous as we might assume. Recent controversies involving religious extremism and controversial speakers on college campuses illustrate the difficulties applying these principles to concrete cases, and the normative challenges posed by those who question the desirability of doing so.

To better understand the values of free speech and toleration, we need to understand the historical context in which those values emerged, and the philosophical arguments that were made on behalf of them. Moreover, we need to better understand the arguments that were and continue to be made against those values. After all, as John Stuart Mill, one of the philosophers we will read in this class, once wrote, “The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.”

Accordingly, this class will begin with a brief survey of some of the most influential arguments made on behalf of religious intolerance and censorship, from the Catholic St. Augustine and the Protestant John Calvin. We will then turn to the classic arguments for religious toleration (by John Locke) and free expression (by John Stuart Mill). We will explore several modern challenges to these ideas including hate speech, pornography, and the pursuit of social justice. Finally, we will conclude with an in-depth examination of free speech on contemporary college campuses. Should universities regulate speech inside or outside of classrooms to create “safe spaces” for students? Do provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos have the right to speak on campus? Do protestors have the right to shout him down? How can a commitment to free speech be reconciled with a commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive learning environment for students?

Download the syllabus for my Spring 2018 course on “Free Speech and Toleration.”