Unlearning Liberty: Censorship on College Campuses

October 26, 2012

This week Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), released his new book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of the American Debate. In a New York Times piece to mark its release Lukianoff highlights the threat colleges and universities pose to students’ First Amendment rights.

Colleges and universities are supposed to be bastions of unbridled inquiry and expression but they probably do as much to repress free speech as any other institution in young people’s lives.

His book catalogues over 11 years of abuses by universities across the country who utilize civility codes and ‘free speech zones’ to limit students’ freedoms to assemble, protest and debate. Recent evidence of such infringements can be readily found:

  • At Christopher Newport University students were forbidden from protesting against Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) rally. The “Freedom of Expression” rules of their student handbook did not allow exceptions to a regulation that stated that students must apply for a demonstration permit 10 days in advance—despite the fact that Mr. Ryan’s rally was only announced two days prior to his visit.
  • Jillyann Burns, a libertarian Ohio University student, was banned from putting a notice on her door that criticized both President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney for being unfit for office. Residence hall advisers emailed students to tell them that “NO political posters/flyers should be hung in the hallways…until 14 days before an election.” Burns protest the ruling which has since been overturned.
  • University of Georgia student Hayden Barnes was expelled for using Facebook to peacefully protest the University’s plan to spend $30 million in student fees to construct new college parking garages. 

Lukianoff’s book delves deeper into these trends to highlight how such infringements have had hugely negative impacts on the educative experience of students. Commenting on the upcoming election Lukianoff is unsurprised by the expectation that voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds is expected to fall back to its usual low levels after 2008’s unusual high. “Students can’t learn how to navigate democracy and engage with their fellow citizens if they are forced to think twice before they speak their mind.”

Reason on free speech and the work of FIRE