The Freedom to Discuss Freedom of Speech

A local journalist wrote to me this morning about my views on "free speech," "safe space" and such terms that have recently lost their previous historical banality and acquired some political meaning. Here I reproduce, in full, our conversation that will soon appear, in some form, in the local paper.

Dear Prof. Bhattacharya,

I’m looking for some perspective from you. I’m following up on one of the statements in last week’s free speech forum sponsored by the Purdue Graduate Student Government. In particular, one of the authors of the Chicago Principles — the ones used to craft Purdue’s new speech policy — raised the idea that the rise in taking offense on campuses is generational. The implication was that students today are soft (my word, not theirs).

I’m wondering if I can get your take on that, given your work at Purdue over the years — in the classroom and in issues through various social justice groups on campus.

Also, have you heard of any questions about trigger warnings or any other similar things in your department or elsewhere at Purdue?

Thanks for the time and consideration of this.

Hi Dave,

Thank you for writing.

I personally have only had thoughtful and reflective comments from my students, never a 'demand' from them that I have perceived to be curbing of my intellectual freedom.  I have students who hold a range of political positions in my classes, as they should, and I see my job as encouraging them to think broadly, critically and collaboratively.

That said, I am concerned that by using terms such as “generational” that homogenizes all students, the author you reference here might be conflating students “taking offence” at some things, with students protesting structural and institutional injustice.

I think a false polarization is being made between "free speech" and the protests against racism and gender violence that have risen on our campuses lately.  I see the recent student protests as deepening and extending the right of free speech for everybody, rather than free speech being the preserve of a few.

The first thing I would say is I am very proud of students at the University of Missouri and elsewhere across the country, especially of the students at Purdue, who have in these last months launched such inspiring antiracist protests.


These students have brought to the surface stories of deep harassment and racism that is the obvious truth in the lives of people of color on campuses but a truth that has been often been denied entry into the mainstream narrative.

I feel the same way about students who have in recent times raised their voice against rape culture and gender violence.  We all owe them a deep debt of gratitude.

We also must remember that the student protests come in the wake of harsh realities.

  • Among the graduating class of 2015, over 70 % students took out loans at an average of $35,000--a record so far, and $15,000 more than 10 years ago.
  • And for those that teach them, a 70 % of faculty members across the country are contingent faculty without job security.
  • Meanwhile, across the country programs that teach about race, gender or ethnicity—programs that were, by the way, established through a previous generation of student protests in the 1960s and 1970s— are being cut.

This return of campus protests is clearly an expression of anger and sorrow that had been institutionally banished from student life . So I am concerned when these protests are cast as a suppression of the right to free expression.


We may not agree with every demand and tactic adopted by the movement. History tells us that any vibrant social movement is constituted by multiple strategies that arise during struggle.

But for me, these student protests are not decreasing the space of political opinions.  Instead, the demonstrations are clearly increasing political debate and discussion about injustices that are deeply inscribed in our institutions.

They are facilitating and strengthening free speech for all of us.


Thank you.