What I should have said at FreedomFest

July 16, 2012

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the libertarian superconference in Las Vegas known as FreedomFest. My organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), was there in part because our short documentary "Don’t Mess with Firefly" was up for an award as part of the Anthem Film Festival. Daily Caller readers may remember the case from last fall in which a drama professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout found himself in hot water for posting a beloved quote from that short-lived, Joss Whedon science-fiction series, and for mocking the bullying response of the campus chief of police to that posting. I wrote several articles about the case last fall, pointing out that there could be no question that Professor Miller’s speech was protected. Ultimately, the university backed down, but only in the face of the passionate response from Firefly fans across the planet, who were mobilized by FIRE with the help of the show’s stars, including Nathan Fillion and Adam Baldwin, and legendary science-fiction and fantasy author Neil Gaiman.

For the full story, check out the video yourself:

To my delight and genuine surprise, the video won the award for best short documentary and we were whisked up to the stage with instructions that we were to keep our acceptance comments very brief. I thought it was appropriate to let the video’s director and FIRE’s Video Fellow Ted Balaker speak, but after he thanked FIRE and the judges for the award, the wonderful host of the festival Jo Ann Skousen pointed me to the microphone. Again, I was genuinely surprised, so I said only two things, "Go FIRE" and "Go Browncoats."

The second I began to walk off the stage I started mentally kicking myself. As a huge fan of the show Firefly, I just kind of assumed that people know that "Browncoats" refers to any fan of the show. The name comes from the coats worn by the defeated rebels who star in the show. But I’m sure that 90% of the audience had no idea what I was talking about.

With a long time in the Las Vegas airport (as my 4 a.m. flight slowly morphed into a noon flight due to a broken engine), I had a lot of time to think about what I really wanted to tell that feisty libertarian audience. Here is what I would have said if time had been no object:

Thank you, Jo Ann, and thank you, FreedomFest, for this wonderful award for a video about a case that is close to my geeky heart. While the stakes were very real for Professor Miller, as a simple tribute to a beloved show seemed poised to end his career, overall the story is funny at times and ultimately has a happy ending. Yet the fact is that selective and often-ideological censorship on campus is a scandal that only grows more deeply entrenched as the years go by. When speech codes first came into vogue on college campuses in the late 1980s and early 1990s most Americans, whether they were right or left of center, were aghast. Wasn’t censorship fundamentally incompatible with the robust exchange of ideas necessary to create a vibrant, creative, and fearless engine for intellectual innovation? Speech codes and punishment for politically incorrect speech were rightfully seen as a rejection of higher education’s noblest traditions. But today, after three decades of speech codes and a campus culture that too often empowers the most easily offended in the room to dictate what can be said, I more often run into a kind of shoulder-shrugging acceptance of the campus climate. Indeed, I fear that a generation of students not only believes this is normal, but also that this paternalistic version of Big Brother is actually fairly benign. But campus censorship, the culture that creates it, and the culture it has created is anything but benign.

 In my forthcoming book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, I talk about how the bad intellectual habits of the Academy are harming our nation. Campus censorship has not succeeded in making unpopular opinions on campus go away. Instead, the threat of being punished for the wrong opinion leads students to talk only to people with whom they already agree, rather than engage in the wonderful and sometimes painful process of debating and discussing important ideas with intelligent dissenters. The ever-present threat of being punished for the wrong opinion and the social atmosphere that this threat creates means that the one institution that could be helping us transcend groupthink and political bi-polarity is actually supercharging those problems. The Academy has also legitimized a whole toolbox of easy, unscholarly outs for the difficult discussions our society needs to be having. For example, we have taught students that a claim of offense is sufficient to shut down or short-circuit debate and discussion. Can graduates honestly be blamed if they use those claims to avoid discussions they simply don’t want to have, or even worse, if they use it half-genuinely to silence people they simply dislike? You can see this tactic all over our society today, whether it be the case of Naomi Schaefer-Riley, Juan Williams, Rush Limbaugh, or even Bill Maher. Simply put, forcing students to walk on eggshells at the one institution whose entire reason for existence is to make us deeper, more sophisticated thinkers is making us all a little bit dumber.

And let’s not forget the greatest consequence of the gradual acceptance of campus censorship as a normal fact of life and higher education: students have come to accept speech codes and even tiny free speech zones that violate their First Amendment rights. They have also come to accept that they can get in trouble for speaking their minds in class — a problem so striking that sociologists puzzle over why we have produced a "silent generation." Studies even show that as few as 30% of college seniors strongly agree with the statement "it’s safe to hold unpopular views on campus." [PDF] When selective censorship of dissent is accepted as an everyday experience, and even a beneficial force, how long can we honestly expect the next generation to fiercely defend it as a principle? As FIRE Co-founder Alan Charles Kors so eloquently and succinctly put it, "A nation that does not educate in liberty will not long endure in liberty and it will not even know when it is lost."

Oh yes, of course, Go FIRE! Go Browncoats! 

Schools: University of Wisconsin – Stout Cases: University of Wisconsin – Stout: Censorship, Referral to Threat Assessment Team, and Threat of Criminal Charges after Professor Puts Posters Outside Office Door