Greg Debates Academic Freedom for ‘LA Times’ All This Week

By April 15, 2008

All week, FIRE’s president Greg Lukianoff will be debating with Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and Scientific American columnist, on issues concerning academic freedom in higher education. Greg and Michael have been asked by the Los Angeles Times to answer questions on political bias, indoctrination of students, and ideological curricula at universities for the paper’s opinion section, "Dust-Up." Today’s debate was based on the question:

Do universities have a customer-service responsibility to their students to rein in expression that makes students uncomfortable?

Greg began the debate by stating:

It’s a rare that I hear a new argument for policing offensive speech on campus, but a "customer service" obligation is pretty novel. Excuses for censorship abound on campuses, including repression in the name of tolerance, civility, fighting words and more. Yet campuses are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas. If you limit speech to only that which students and administrators find "comfortable" (a category that seems to get smaller daily), academic freedom and free speech on campus will die. If colleges and universities have any "customer service" obligation, it is to expose students to diverse views, not to censor them. Higher education’s function is to serve as a forum for serious debate, discussion and intellectual innovation. Done correctly, feelings will be hurt, beliefs will be challenged, and sacred cows will be barbecued. Being offended is what happens when you have your deepest beliefs challenged, and if you make it through college without ever having been offended, you should ask for your money back.

Greg then cited numerous examples of schools that have already been censoring students and faculty members, including FIRE’s cases at Colorado College, Brandeis University, and Lake Superior State University.

In his response, Michael began by saying:

Wow, Greg, you really nailed it here. I find myself in near-agreement on the excessiveness of political correctness on college campuses.

However, he continued with:

I believe in free enterprise and the rights of companies and organizations to set their own rules that the government has no business rewriting. Yes, of course, violations of civil liberties and constitutional rights are the exceptions here. But I will make a free-market case for treating universities and colleges as corporations that offer products and services (education and diplomas) to potential customers (students). As such, each academic corporation sets up a mission statement about what it stands for, what it offers and especially what it expects from its customers when they are on company property; that is, its rules.

To read the entire debate, click here. This exciting series of debates will continue all week long at the Los Angeles Times and Greg will also be answering Michael’s point over at The Huffington Post.