Some Americans Want ‘Freedom from Speech’

September 8, 2014

By William R. Toler at The Richmond County Daily Journal

“There is no freedom from speech” is a phrase often uttered by First Amendment firebrands, usually when people call for government intervention to speech that offends them.

A new book from Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, shows just how far Americans — and the rest of the world — have to go before learning that lesson.

In “Freedom From Speech,” a broadside released today, Lukianoff begins by pointing out a number of instances where celebrities have been punished for their speech over the past two years. Although most cases don’t fall under the First Amendment because there was no government intervention, Lukinoff stresses that it is still a matter of free speech.

“Though often used interchangeably, the concept of freedom of speech and the First Amendment are not the same thing,” he writes. “While the First Amendment protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press as they relate to duties of the state and state power, freedom of speech is a far broader idea that includes additional cultural values.”

Lukianoff lays part of the blame on the political correctness, speech codes and intolerance for unpopular speech found on college campuses across the country.

While higher education, often called the “marketplace of ideas,” could be helping to fight for freedom of speech, Lukianoff says “campuses are actively accelerating the push for freedom from speech.”

Throughout the book, Lukianoff covers several recent trends that provide comfort from speech that may be found “offensive” or speech that some just disagree with.

One such trend is what he and his collegues at FIRE have dubbed “disinvitation season.” The organization found that there have been 111 cases since 2001 where speakers have been disinvited from college campuses because of holding an unpopular viewpoint.

Another is the call for professors to issue trigger warnings for classroom material that “might evoke a negative emotional response.”

Lukinaoff referenced a New York Times article on the subject that mentioned a Rutgers student requesting a trigger warning for the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic “The Great Gatsby” because it “possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.”

“To those who value intellectual freedom…trigger warnings are yet another manifestation of the attitude that society must protect every individual from emotionally difficult speech,” he writes. “It is impossible to live up to this expectation, and in the course of trying to do so, we risk devastating freedom of speech and the open exchange of ideas.”

To combat the threats to free speech, Lukianoff suggests having students engage in Oxford-style debates and having comedians join the battle as “it is blazingly clear that politically correct censorship and comedy are natural enemies.”

He adds that “old-fashioned intellectual habits,” including listening to opposing views, should make a comeback on campuses.

“(U)nless higher education stops encouraging these inclinations and starts combating them, it will be a hard battle indeed,” he concludes. “Then again, the fight for freedom of speech has never been easy.”

To read more about free speech issues at colleges, check out Lukianoff’s 2012 book “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate,” “The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses” by FIRE founders Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate or visit www.thefire.org.