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New Book by Kirsten Powers Examines Attacks on Open Discourse on College Campuses

By May 12, 2015

Columnist and Fox News contributor Kirsten Powers takes a thorough look at how open debate is being stifled nationwide in her new book, The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech. While FIRE’s case archives demonstrate that censorship attempts come from all sides, Powers, a “proud liberal,” particularly expresses her disappointment in liberals. “Liberals,” she writes, “are supposed to believe in diversity, which should include diversity of thought and belief.”

In her book, Powers aptly describes what colleges and universities should be and what they are too often becoming. After citing comedian Chris Rock’s hesitance to perform on college campuses because of the high risk of backlash over edgy jokes, Powers writes:

This Orwellian climate of intimidation and fear chills free speech and thought. On college campuses it is particularly insidious. Higher education should provide an environment to test new ideas, debate theories, encounter challenging information, and figure out what one believes. Campuses should be places where students are able to make mistakes without fear of retribution. If there is no margin for error, it is impossible to receive a meaningful education.

Instead, the politically correct university is a world of land mines, where faculty and students have no idea what innocuous comment might be seen as an offense.

Powers isn’t alone in her view that mistakes are an integral part of learning. As she notes, Harvard University professor and author Steven Pinker articulated this idea during his keynote address at FIRE’s 15th Anniversary Gala last year.

Powers writes in her book:

Pinker invoked the critical role free speech plays in a democratic system in a 2014 speech. We acquire knowledge through a “process that Karl Popper called conjecture and refutation,” said Pinker. “We come up with ideas about the nature of reality, and test them against that reality, allowing the world to falsify the mistaken ones. The ‘conjecture’ part of this formula, of course, presupposes the exercise of free speech. We offer these conjectures without any prior assurance they are correct. It is only by bruiting ideas and seeing which ones withstand attempts to refute them that we acquire knowledge.”

The illiberal left seeks to short-circuit this process. They don’t want to defend their views, nor do they want to allow forums for other people to present views that are at odds with the conclusions they have drawn on an array of issues. Sometimes, the mere suggestion of holding a debate is cast as an offense.

As Torch readers may remember, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff joined Powers for an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate back in February. In The Silencing, Powers draws on FIRE’s research and reporting on speech codes, increasing demands for visiting speakers to be disinvited from campus, and other calls to be free from speech that some deem offensive, all of which support her concerns throughout the book. Whatever her readers’ political affiliation, she urges them to “make efforts to invite people who hold different views into [their] worlds.” FIRE couldn’t agree more.

Read an excerpt from the book at The Daily Beast and purchase it in hardcover, for Kindle, or in audiobook form at Amazon.com.