Writing In Defense of Free Speech in Universities

By: Amy Lai | Date: February 13, 2024 | Tags: Author Post, Higher Education
Cover of Amy Lai's book over a background of fire

This guest post is by Amy Lai, author of In Defense of Free Speech in Universities: A Study of Three Jurisdictions, which is now available in hardcover, paperback, and open access. Choice wrote that the book is “A valuable read for graduate and law students and general readers.” You can read more by Amy Lai on her blog

The idea of this book took root in the summer of 2018, a few months after the Lindsay Shepherd incident in Canada. I became increasingly aware that Canada, where I was then living, was witnessing a free speech crisis in its universities. Nonetheless, the situation was far worse than I thought it was. In early October of the same year, I travelled to a Canadian university to interview for a teaching job. The interviewers expressed a very keen interest in my book project and inquired about its contents and arguments (an act which seemed innocent and which I, in hindsight, would deem very “sneaky”). My strong conviction got the better of me, and I became very candid about my belief that deplatforming speakers is generally not a good policy. That very night, I read from the news that my interviewers were among those in the faculty who had been desperately trying to disinvite speakers whom they considered to harbor the “wrong” views and they had done it multiple times. It therefore hardly came as a surprise when I was notified—two days after the interview—that I did not get the job (any guilt on my part for not having delivered the perfect performance also disappeared).

The free speech crisis no doubt is not unique to Canadian academia. The last ten years has seen a rising number of free speech disputes in western academia, including the United States and the United Kingdom. During this same period, numerous books on campus free speech have appeared on the market. However, they mainly focus on the U.S. They also use academic freedom and free speech interchangeably, offering neither a philosophical analysis nor a historical study of either of them. In addition, they do not provide an in-depth analysis of critical concepts including microaggression, trigger warning, and concept creep, let alone contextualize the analysis with examples and case studies.

My book is divided into three parts. The first part explores the history and philosophical foundations of free speech as well as the importance of free speech in Western universities. It also differentiates free speech from academic freedom and examines their interrelationship.

The second part examines a variety of concepts, including political correctness, trigger warning, microaggression, deplatforming, and safe space. It explains why political correctness, if taken to the extreme, jeopardizes the freedom of inquiry. It also affirms the harmfulness of microaggression, while encouraging targets to assert their agency to resist microaggressive acts and reclaim their dignity. It further examines how deplatforming hurts freedom of inquiry, and why turning the campus into a safe space might justify the use of pre-emptive violence against those unfairly perceived as threatening the safety of the bubble.

The third part contextualizes all the concepts in Part two in its discussion of numerous case studies in the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Canada. Whereas the U.S. has done a fair job in safeguarding free speech in its university campuses, largely due to robust protection offered by its First Amendment tradition, the U.K.’s free speech bill holds some promise in improving the dire situation. Canada, however, lags far behind these two countries, due to the uncertainty as to whether its constitution (the “Charter”) applies to universities as well as the lack of courage of many university presidents and employees.

Finally, what distinguishes In Defense of Free Speech in Universities from other books is its emphasis on the rising threat posed by hostile foreign governments to Western academia, and its urgent call for protecting free discourse despite rampant attempts to suppress narratives critical of such governments (e.g. China) on many Western university campuses. The book emphasizes that even if “every man has a price,” universities in democratic countries must set the price as high as possible, resist temptations to bargain away its most fundamental liberties, and safeguard the university as a bastion of free speech.

Getting this book manuscript accepted and publishing it have been some of the proudest moments of my life. Admittedly, I was rather emotionally overwhelmed by what happened in my city of birth (Hong Kong) as I wrote and revised the manuscript from 2019 through 2022. I always feel saddened by the fact that many young people in Western countries, who never have had to fight for their freedom of speech, take it for granted and so readily give it up. I hope that my readers will heed the warning in the book and help protect this fundamental freedom.