Fighting for Free Speech

October 22, 2012

“On college campuses today, students are punished for everything from mild satire, to writing politically incorrect short stories, to having the ‘wrong’ opinion on virtually every hot button issue, and, increasingly, simply for criticizing the college administration,” writes Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), in Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate.

Lukianoff, a first generation American, details the ways that colleges and universities have restricted free speech on their campuses.

He told the Washington Free Beacon that he wanted to present the arguments in favor of free speech on colleges and universities.

“They seemed to have lost sight of” the value free speech provides to a “healthy and vibrant university,” Lukianoff said.

“The cases have gotten worse over the decades.”

FIRE is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that seeks “to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities,” according to its website.

“People end up treating free speech as a conservative niche issue,” Lukianoff said, but free speech affects all kinds of speech, even apolitical speech, he noted.

Lukianoff emphasized that he is a liberal atheist, and that he has spent much of his time defending individuals and groups with whom he disagrees. Had anyone told him that he would have spent as much time defending evangelical Christians as he has, he said, he would have called it “conservative propaganda.”

“Given my experience, however, I was not at all surprised when a 2007 study of attitudes about religion among faculty performed by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research showed that evangelical Christians were the only group that a majority of faculty were comfortable to admit evoked strong negative feelings in them,” Lukianoff writes.

He cited Vanderbilt University’s “all comers policy” as an example of an administrative policy that targets Christians, and referred to a video that FIRE has made about the effects of the policy there.

The policy means, Lukianoff said, “that groups, even if they are belief-based, are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of belief.”

Vanderbilt is a private institution, where “You have the right as an individual to join a more restrictive college,” Lukianoff said.

Public schools, however, are “flat out” required to follow the First Amendment, he said. For this reason, many colleges with restrictive speech codes (FIRE has a “Speech Code of the Month” on its website) have a “legal problem on their hands.”

He added, “Every time these speech codes are challenged in a court of law, the university loses.”

While FIRE seeks to uphold legal rights at public universities, it also seeks to hold private institutions to their own standards, Lukianoff said.

The most prestigious colleges and universities “promise free speech in glowing language,” he said, as they know they will not attract the best students and faculty if they do not promote the free expression of ideas. Donors are also less likely to give money if the school restricts freedom of speech.

Lukianoff devotes an entire chapter of his book to detailing ways that Harvard and Yale restrict free speech.

One reason universities are increasingly restricting free speech, he said, is because of an expanding college bureaucracy. He said that around 2006 the number of administrators passed the number of instructional staff at U.S. colleges and universities.

“That hyper-bureaucratization has left a lot of people with a lot of power over students,” he said, and has resulted in universities being places “where people’s feelings don’t get hurt.”

But, he noted, the decline in free speech is related to the increase in the cost of college, which has vastly outpaced the rate of inflation. If the higher education bubble bursts, then universities will have less money to spend on administrators, he said, which could make universities more free for students.

The rise in restrictive speech codes has allowed “cheap dodges to meaningful conversation” to become prevalent in society.

“Campus censorship distorts the way we all talk to each other,” he said. “It’s hard to have meaty conversations when you’re walking on eggshells.”

Americans have accepted “feigned outrage as a tactic in our society,” he said, and “this is a tactic that has been legitimized and weaponized on campuses.” Ending a conversation by saying that you are offended is no way to meaningfully converse with someone.

Discourse in America has become more and more polarized.

“Our best hope to make our discourse better, given this polarization, is higher education,” in which individuals can freely and meaningfully interact with others.

Campus censorship, however, creates “an environment where people don’t feel safe” to express unpopular views on campus, which can lead to the “silent classroom,” where students do not interact in class out of fear of reprisal.

Campus censorship affects society more broadly, as well. “This academic disdain that some professors show for freedom of speech is making its way into society,” he said.

“I think that we’d be kidding ourselves” if we think that the schools that train society’s future leaders do not affect society, he said.

Lukianoff noted that many academics took the idea that an offensive video caused the protests and attacks throughout the Middle East and used it to argue that free speech in America is too broad.