Last week’s op-ed by FIRE President Greg Lukianoff in The New York Times, titled "Feigning Free Speech on Campus," introduced the massive problem of repression on campus to Times readers and pointed out that "[s]tudents 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." FIRE is pleased to announce that the piece inspired a number of letters from readers across the country.
The first letter, from Daniel F. Melia, a Berkeley professor, calls Greg’s warning about censorship on campus "well taken" and uses the example of a resolution from the California legislature, which FIRE discussed earlier this fall, as an example of how well-intentioned efforts to mandate civility on campus can turn into widespread censorship.
The second letter, from Casey Downey of Middletown, Connecticut, comes to a different conclusion. Citing the "psychological safety" of students, Downey admits that "as a citizen, I am wary of any policy that chills speech" but ultimately concludes that colleges must prioritize safety over freedom of speech when they conflict.
Unfortunately, Downey, a college student, appears to have bought into the idea—encouraged by many colleges—that offensive speech is somehow "unsafe" and that banning certain kinds of speech can provide a "safe" environment. Yet efforts by universities to do what Downey is calling for can and do only result in a stifling uniformity of public speech that impoverishes students’ educations while providing, at best, merely the illusion of being in a place where everyone agrees with you. If students come to believe that this is what "safety" means, they will be in for a very unpleasant time upon leaving college and entering the public sphere, where the police will not be on call to intervene whenever political actors like Mitt Romney and Barack Obama or political commentators like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher say things that offend people or make them uncomfortable.
Joseph Bernstein of Haverford, Pennsylvania, recalls his time at Columbia College in the early 1980s, and says that "even without [speech] codes, speech on campus back then was markedly constrained. There was no more foolproof means of assuring oneself of a lonely Saturday night than saying nice things in public about Ronald Reagan." While that may be true, attracting a social stigma for one’s views is a reality in a free society—and, in fact, has many beneficial aspects. For instance, the irrelevance of the Ku Klux Klan in today’s political discourse is a function of the fact that the stigma of being a member of that organization is so sharply negative that those who are members are roundly ignored or condemned by the vast majority of Americans.
Finally, college student Daniel Koas of Waltham, Massachusetts, states, "I agree wholeheartedly with Greg Lukianoff," and points out that the fact that he and his roommate have dueling posters in their dorm room window supporting different Massachusetts Senate candidates has led to some laughs and increased discussion. That’s exactly what is supposed to happen on a college campus (and in America generally), and we commend Koas and his roommate for discussing current political issues like the adults they are.