This fall I will celebrate 12 years defending the basic rights of students on college campuses across the country, and in that time my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has had some great successes. But while we win battle after battle, sometimes I fear we are losing the war. Time and time again I see examples of how campuses are teaching a generation, primarily through example, how to think like censors and how to apply all the wrong lessons about what it means to live in a free society. In fact, we even have a term for it at FIRE. We call this process Unlearning Liberty, and I wrote a book about it.
For example, Jana King, a student at Louisiana State University, has made a video providing an unusually frank explanation of the attitude towards free speech of too many students on the modern college campus. As you can see below, she is very concerned that LSU has abandoned its absurd “free speech zone” policy and that now—gasp—free speech might be able to happen everywhere on campus. Check out some of the examples of the horrible adversity she’s had to endure under our “foolish” First Amendment:Also, be sure to read her companion piece in the student newspaper that goes into more depth about why she thinks allowing free speech outside of the old “free speech alley” (her name, not mine) is such a distressing development. She favorably quotes a fellow student: “People are assholes about opinions, no matter how much they don’t want to be. With a school of 30,000 people, all able to speak openly about their opinions anywhere on campus, things could get ugly.” A campus where everyone can express his or her opinion, which would be cited as a shining aspiration to a previous generation, now is presented as a frightening dystopia.
In a sense, I am grateful for her video and article because it’s rare to see a student so clearly and forthrightly make the case against basic political speech on campus. It’s also nice to have someone state so clearly that they think basic political speech could be harassment and possibly deny her a “safe learning environment.” When I tell people the language “safe learning environment” is often used as a code for the supposed right “not to be offended,” they are, ironically enough, sometimes offended by that suggestion. But Jana King has no problem connecting the dots for us. The watering down of what “safety” means on campus is dangerous for all the same reasons that the proverbial boy should not have cried “wolf!” On today’s modern campus, safety equates to comfort, which too often means a right not to hear opinions that you dislike. This is precisely the opposite of what campuses should encourage.
I wish I were surprised by anything Jana King says, but my experience speaking on campuses across the country demonstrates that her attitude is all too common. A generation is being raised with the idea that free speech is a nuisance and the enemy of, not an essential element for, progress. Not all of them share this opinion, of course, but I encounter it with increasing frequency on campus. This shortsightedness would immediately become apparent to Jana King should any of her opinions run afoul of the censors. But to so many students on campus, it is simply inconceivable that anyone could want to ban their speech, and it’s taken for granted that they are entitled to be “safe” from hostile points of view.
In a huge study released by the First Amendment Center this summer, a staggering 47% of 18 to 30-year-olds believe that the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment go too far, one of the worst findings in the history of the study. With speech codes as the rule rather than exception on campus, a shocking lack of civics education, and illiberal examples everywhere on campus these days, we can only expect the situation to get worse.