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Free Speech and Civic Virtue

HIST 327

Free Speech and Civic Virtue

  • Course ID:HIST 327
  • Semesters:1
  • Department:History
  • Teachers:Mark Grannis

Description and Objectives

Free speech is one of the cornerstones of modern civilization, especially in the West. But many today believe freedom of speech is under attack—whether by authoritarian governments, unruly mobs, shadowy media moguls, or academic elites. And precisely because of the historic importance of free speech, recriminations over how we handle public discourse have the potential to polarize us even further.

In this course, we will tackle these issues head on by examining the historical justifications for free speech and the way our nation in particular has upheld freedom of speech when it has come under attack in the past. We will shine a light on some of the modern challenges to free speech, from the identity politics we find in the newspapers to the echo-chambering and virtue signaling that dominate social media to the infamous shout-downs and physical violence that have taken place on some of the world’s most prestigious university campuses. We will end with an unremittingly practical consideration of ways we can all cultivate key intellectual virtues on which free speech and civil society depend: charity, humility, temperance, and fortitude.

By the end of the semester, you will:

  • Learn to think about free speech in a systematic and principled way;
  • Develop your ability to enter into constructive dialogue with others who may disagree fundamentally about the most important things in life;
  • Gain historical familiarity with the stresses society sometimes places on free speech; and
  • Understand your own fallibility—and how you should speak with and listen to others as a result.

Outline of Topics Covered:

We will begin with a sustained examination of free speech and the benefits of robust public discourse, and then consider what social conditions and personal motivations such an exchange of ideas presupposes. We will survey several historical low-points for freedom of speech in the United States, and assess our public discourse today in the media, on campus, and in politics.  We will conclude with an intensely practical focus on how we can all read, write, speak, and listen more constructively.

  • Unit 1:  Free Speech and Truth
  • Unit 2:  Free Speech in Community
  • Unit 3:  Free Speech in U.S. History
  • Unit 4:  Contemporary Public Discourse–On the Air, Online, and On Campus
  • Unit 5:  How Not to Be a Snowflake
  • Unit 6:  How to Make Arguments Instead of Having Them
  • Unit 7:  Free Speech and Civic Virtue

Throughout these units, our class discussions will collect, assess, and reformulate arguments on issues of current interest.   


The readings will consist primarily of handouts distributed in class. They will include wisdom from the past three millennia, abridged versions of Supreme Court opinions, and excerpts from more recent works on how we talk to each other.

Course Requirements

You should expect daily reading assignments, frequent low-stakes quizzes, and roughly three unit tests per quarter. Your quarterly grades will be based on your performance on quizzes and tests, the quality of your class participation, and any extra-credit projects you complete. Quizzes will test your retrieval based on the readings, but all unit tests will be open-note, so take good notes. There will be a comprehensive final examination.

Successful Students

The successful student will come increasingly to model the civic virtues we are studying. He will be acutely aware of his own fallibility, which will make him humble about his own opinions, moderate in his language, and eager to learn from others. He will be charitable in his presuppositions about others and his interpretations of what they say and do, and this will make him very slow to take offense. At the same time, he will love truth enough to be courageous about defending it even when he stands alone in his opinion. Needless to say, he will be courageous enough to listen at least as much as he speaks. Such a student will be successful not just in this course but throughout his happy life.

If you need any help understanding the material after we have gone over it in class, please contact me right away so that we can get to the root of the misunderstanding and provide additional practice or instruction where appropriate.