FIRE Singes the Censors

By November 2, 2012

How time flies. In 1987, a new breed of speech and harassment codes and student indoctrination were unleashed on college campuses across the land. Thus, what Allan Kors and Harvey Silverglate famously labeled the "shadow university"–the university dedicated to censorship and politically correct paternalism–is now at least 25 years old.

The public recognized the consequences of the new censorship early on. Noteworthy authors began writing articles and books about the mounting suppression of free speech, academic freedom, and due process on campus, culminating in the in-depth chronicling of the dark state of higher education in The Shadow University in 1998. By the end of the 1990s, however, many observers predicted that the repression would eventually run out of steam as the passions driving political correctness waned with age. And in many respects, political correctness often did appear to mellow out. More skeptical observers claimed that it was not disappearing, but metastasizing. Who was right?

Greg Lukianoff adresses this question in his outstanding new book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate (Encounter Books). Lukianoff is the president of the Philadelphia based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, popularly known by its telling acronym, FIRE. Unlearning Liberty is based on cases with which FIRE has dealt over the years.

FIRE was founded by Kors and Silverglate in 1999 and quickly supplanted the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors as the "go-to" organization for defending the victims of the liberty wars on campus. FIRE’s success is also a function of the ceaseless stream of cases it has had to confront. It is a virtuoso at its game, but that game happens to be a version of Whack-a-Mole.

If nothing else, Unlearning Liberty supports those who claim that political correctness has undergone metastasis rather than entropy. Critics will claim that the book is too anecdotal to provide conclusive evidence of the problem’s scope. This critique has some merit but comes with the territory of such books. More systematic inquiry is needed, certainly, but it is one thing to question to extent of the problem and another to say there is nothing rotten in the state of Denmark. Furthermore, as Lukianoff observes early in the book, "Even a single conspicuous case of punishing speech can have dramatic consequences. This is what we lawyers call "’the chilling effect.’" Anyone who has been embroiled in the politics of liberty on campus recognizes the wisdom of this point.

A true and self-proclaimed liberal through and through, Lukianoff plays no political favorites and cares about everyone whose ox is gored. But Unlearning Liberty is not just another rehash of the campus free speech wars. It is eloquently written from a voice of genuine experience, and it maintains a healthy sense of humor that is often needed when dealing with dismal the subject matter. Four other virtues of the book stand out on a longer list.

First, Unlearning Liberty provides an illuminating update of FIRE’s cases. (In addition to the book, see FIRE’s Reading these cases is like watching a Mel Brooks version of Night of the Living Dead. You laugh at their absurdity; you cry for the victims; you tremble at the implications for our constitutional democracy. Pick your poison from the parade of horribles. For example,  the University of Delaware’s Resident Life program required students to go through a veritable four year "treatment" regimen that entailed extensive indoctrination in "correct" attitudes toward race, gender, sexual orientation, and sensitivity. For instance, the program obligated students to discuss such private matters as how they had discovered their sexuality. When a student demurred, she was "written up." FIRE succeeded in shutting down the Delaware program with the able assistance of two professors there.

Then there’s the case of the student at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis who was charged with racial harassment in 2007 because a book he read (Notre Dame v. the Klan) had a picture of a Ku Klux Klan rally on the cover. It made no difference that the book actually celebrated Notre Dame’s success in keeping the Klan off campus. It was enough that the book’s cover made some complainants uncomfortable. FIRE managed to get IUPUI to drop the charges against the "offending" student, but only after he had undergone the agonies associated with being the target of an illegitimate campus investigation.

A second virtue is Unlearning Liberty‘s perspective. The author has toiled at the organizational epicenter of the battle over freedom on campus. Constituting the first history of FIRE, the book is replete with illustrations of FIRE’s most important cases. FIRE always seeks cooperation and consent whenever feasible but is poised to up the ante when needed. It combines principle with strategic judgement.

A third virtue is the way that Lukianoff scrutinizes all the contexts in which intellectual liberty is compromised . He takes an ideal-type freshman on a personal journey through his or her first college encounters, focusing on key problem areas: rules and regulations that restrict truly honest and diverse discourse, such as prohibitions against inappropriate laughter, criticism of political affiliation; prohibitions of inconvenient or uncomfortable viewpoints in dorm life, in student orientation sessions, and in the classroom; the imposition of "free speech zones"; the  Kafkaesque processes of student judiciaries; the politics and rules governing the operation of student groups; and the misbehavior of campus authorities and bureaucrats.

Among the most amazing cases Lukianoff presents are instances of campus authorities punishing students for simply criticizing administrative actions. In the book’s first case, the president of Valdosta State University expels a student because the student publicly criticized the president’s decision to build a new parking lot on campus. It took a federal court to reinstate the student.

A fourth outstanding virtue of the book is that it is written in the spirit of such figures as Alexander Hamilton and Judge Learned Hand, who famously taught us that liberty cannot prevail if it is not alive in the hearts and minds of citizens. Accordingly, Unlearning Liberty strives to educate readers about the deeper arguments for free thought that underpin the First Amendment. Drawing on thoughtful theorists of free expression, Lukianoff illustrates how freedom of thought and speech are indispensable to intellectual growth, character development, and democratic citizenship. He discusses how these virtues depend upon exposing individuals to all relevant ideas, especially those with which one disagrees, and teaching them how to formulate and defend their own thoughts. Higher education’s emphasis upon having the "right" ideas and values in politically charged areas has often short-circuited the minds of too many young adults who have entered the adult world.

Crimes of omission are bad enough, but crimes of commission are worse. The most disturbing implication of Unlearning Liberty is not that higher education often neglects to teach and practice liberty–though that is certainly bad enough–but that it is complicit in the very "unlearning" of liberty. Rather than instructing us in the liberty that Lincoln claimed "consecrates" us as a people, important domains of higher education are actively teaching us that liberty is bad. What does this bode for the future?

Lukianoff draws on the meticulous work of such social scientists as Diana C. Mutz, who shows in Hearing the Other Side (2006) that higher education can close minds as much as open them. Referring to Mutz, Lukianoff writes, "[T]hose with the highest levels of education have the lowest exposure to people with conflicting points of view, while those who have not graduated from high school can claim the most diverse discussion mates." Ouch!

I know many academics who bemoan the state of political polarization and paralysis that afflicts our politics today, attributing the cause to many outside sources. Lukianoff shows us that we may be pointing our fingers in the wrong direction. The beginning of wisdom, as Socrates said, lies in "knowing thyself." Reading Unlearning Liberty is a promising and profound remedial step in that direction. But it is up to us to take its lessons to heart and to act accordingly.