“The University Is Not a Public Square”: An Interview with Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth About It’s Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom

Published In


Document Type


Publication Date



In their book, It’s Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022), Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth argue that we need to combat the proliferation of racism by invigorating the idea of academic freedom as a responsibility and not only a right akin to free speech. The authors deploy critical race theory to highlight the pervasiveness of bigotry in the American university. However, they combine theoretical ideas with an intimate knowledge of many specific controversies about academic freedom, including the cases of Amy Wax (co-author of an op-ed praising “bourgeois culture”), Bruce Gilley (author of an article, “The Case for Colonialism”), and Joy Karega (who posted inflammatory anti-Israel and antisemitic statements on social media). Having served on important committees in the American Association of University Professors, Bérubé and Ruth are champions of academic freedom, but they also seek to redefine it, to move it away from the libertarian meaning it has acquired since the 1960s.

The title, It’s Not Free Speech, refers to the tendency among American academics today to think of academic freedom as an individual right inscribed under the First Amendment. Free speech, of course, is not unlimited (think of Justice Holmes and the “crowded theater”), but in the United States, particularly since the Supreme Court case of New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), there is a strong legal presumption that speech which has a political character cannot be regulated. Does this mean that American professors are “free” to engage in political indoctrination in the classroom? Or “free” to promote racist views or flagrantly absurd conspiracy theories on social media sites? These questions have become acute in the United States (and elsewhere). Bérubé and Ruth construe academic freedom as a limitation on the libertarian free-speech ethos. Their book is an exploration of the distinction between academic freedom as a set of professional responsibilities and free speech as a constitutional right.

The authors’ condemnation of academic liars and frauds across the political spectrum is a sign that they seek principles to which readers of different ideological stripes can assent. When Bérubé and Ruth call for the disciplining of crackpots and conspiracy theorists, they do not hesitate to call out professors on the left as well as the right. (See their extensive and judicious coverage of the Karega controversy in Chapter 3, entitled “What Is a Firing Offense?”) One does not have to subscribe to critical race theory to agree that professors need to exercise more self-restraint in their teaching and tweeting. Bérubé and Ruth are trying to revive the spirit of professionalism associated with the American Association of University Professors’ 1915 “General Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.” The principal authors of that document, Arthur Lovejoy and Edwin R. A. Seligman, stated that “there are no rights without corresponding duties.” They added, “The liberty of the scholar within the university to set forth his conclusions . . . is conditioned by their being conclusions gained by a scholar’s method . . . that is to say, they must be the fruits of competent and sincere inquiry, and they should be set for with dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language."

Because this book combines radical theory with a deep sense of the need for professional self-restraint, it must be read with care to appreciate the deliberate balancing of apparently opposed principles. The book should not be judged quickly on the basis of one section. In the following dialogue, I question the authors about their unorthodox and provocative combination of radical and traditional ideas.


© 2022 Springer Nature Switzerland AG.



Persistent Identifier