Table of Contents

After five years of ‘Unlearning Liberty,’ book’s prescriptions command urgent attention

Unlearning Liberty cover

The week professor Allison Stanger spent in the dark was illuminating.

Emerging from an unexpected convalescence back in March, she wrote about it in an op-ed for The New York Times: “Understanding the Angry Mob at Middlebury That Gave Me a Concussion.”

Stanger was assaulted earlier that month when violent protesters confronted conservative academic Charles Murray during a speaking engagement at Middlebury College. Stanger, who teaches international politics and economics at the Vermont liberal arts school, is a self-described Democrat who openly disagrees with Murray. But she had been willing to engage with Murray’s ideas — to hear him out — and volunteered to be the event’s moderator.

For that, Stanger paid dearly: A trip to the hospital. A neck brace. A week in that dark room recovering from a head injury.

To understand the angry mob at Middlebury, she wrote, one had to understand the ultra-polarized state of “political life and discourse in the United States.” It was at a boiling point, particularly on college campuses. The hallmark of this new, treacherous landscape was that both sides were entrenched in their own righteousness.

Students and faculty who did not want Murray even to speak on campus knew they were right; even though, as Stanger writes, they may, actually, have been wrong:

Intelligent members of the Middlebury community — including some of my own students and advisees — concluded that Charles Murray was an anti-gay white nationalist from what they were hearing from one another, and what they read on the Southern Poverty Law Center website. Never mind that Dr. Murray supports same-sex marriage and is a member of the courageous “never Trump” wing of the Republican Party.

Students are in college in part to learn how to evaluate sources and follow up on ideas with their own research. The Southern Poverty Law Center incorrectly labels Dr. Murray a “white nationalist,” but if we have learned nothing in this election, it is that such claims must be fact-checked, analyzed and assessed. Faulty information became the catalyst for shutting off the free exchange of ideas at Middlebury. We must all be more rigorous in evaluating and investigating anger, or this pattern of miscommunication will continue on other college campuses.

The idea at the very heart of a college education is that we must rigorously challenge our own beliefs in search of the truth, but some at Middlebury instead turned first to violence. That speaks volumes about the state of free speech on today’s college campuses.

“All violence,” Stanger wrote, “is a breakdown of communication.”

Certain times.

FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff predicted a complete breakdown was on the horizon five years ago, when he released his bookUnlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate.”

In highlighting more than a decade’s worth of the worst cases of campus civil liberties violations Greg had encountered in his work here at FIRE, “Unlearning Liberty” offered a theory on how the silencing of higher education would lead to scenarios like what happened to Allison Stanger: Censorship was increasing polarization and leading to more censorship; it was spreading off campus, and had the power to upend American democracy as we know it.

“It may seem like a paradox,” Greg wrote, “but an environment that squelches debate and punishes the expression of opinions, in the very institution that is supposed to make us better thinkers, can lead quickly to the formation of polarized groups in which people harbor a comfortable, uncritical certainty that they are right.”

Indeed, “we live in certain times.”

Censorship on campus is, of course, nothing new. For most of FIRE’s history, campus censorship seemed to come primarily from the top down. Students complained about administrators selectively enforcing speech codes and ushering them into tiny, misleadingly-named “free speech zones.”

But in “Unlearning Liberty,” Greg noticed a shift: Many of the calls for censorship on campus were suddenly coming from students themselves.

But why?

Greg had a theory. It was starting in college, and spreading.

“I believe that an unsung culprit in this expansion of unwarranted certainty and group polarization,” he wrote, “is thirty years of college censorship.”

From years of handling censorship cases, Greg knew that students had long been learning that speaking out on campus was risky. Combined with a perfect storm of societal forces — from a lack of K-12 civics education, to skyrocketing college costs and a subsequent boom of campus administrators — the latest generation of students arrived on campus distracted, unaware of the importance of their own rights, and unprepared and thereby unwilling to demand them.

“The result is a group polarization that follows graduates into the real world.”

Since 2012, the vicious cycle has picked up speed: Censorship leads to even more polarization, which leads to more censorship, and round we go. Greg wrote a short follow-up book about the phenomenon of student-led calls for, and acceptance of, censorship — 2014’s “Freedom From Speech.” But things have gotten even worse since then. In particular, the we have seen the remarkable rise in what Greg deemed the “enlightened” censor.

“[W]orse than ambivalence and apathy,” Greg observed, “are the cases where students see free speech as an obstacle to progress, and censorship as the kind of thing that good, enlightened people do.

Middlebury was among the worst examples of that trend since “Unlearning Liberty” came out, but it is by no means an anomaly.

The censorship-is-good attitude that led to Allison Stanger’s injury in March was just the most recent apex in a steady climb of these instances since 2012.

An eerie silence.

The first indicator that something was different was the spreading silence.

Greg detailed a 2006 incident at Marquette University in which a quote by humorist Dave Barry was censored by administrators as “patently offensive” — a legal term reserved, historically, for pornography and excretory functions.

“The censorship was absurd,” he wrote, “and it garnered national attention and calls from reporters, yet the students and faculty did not register a peep.”

Then there was the Auburn University student punished in 2011 for putting a Ron Paul poster in his dorm window.

“Imagine telling students in the 1960s or ’70s that they could not be openly political,” Greg wrote. “[T]hose students probably would’ve literally rioted.”

Absent objections from a lone libertarian group, Auburn’s “attempt to prevent [the student] from engaging in the election process was met by an eerie silence on campus,” Greg wrote.

But most interesting was the 2006 case of the College Republicans at San Francisco State University who protested terrorism by stomping on Hamas and Hezbollah flags. A student complained, and administrators charged the protesters with “incivility.” It wasn’t the administration’s response that most alarmed Greg, though; it was the students’:

The non-Muslim student who filed the complaint asked this question of the disciplinary board: “How can we let the College Republicans have such a rally that was politically motivated and one-sided?”

“I believe a non-politically motivated rally is called a party,” Greg quipped.

Jokes aside, the extremely serious implication of the student’s comment is that there was, per se, a “right side” of a given campus debate. The enlightened censor was coming to the fore. At the time, it was still a relatively novel concept.

Today, that mentality is pervasive among students and, increasingly, faculty.

Good, enlightened people.

“Enlightened” censors are taking over campus. But let’s start with the impact on the purest citadel of higher education: the classroom.

“A silent classroom is a natural—indeed, inevitable—result of an educational atmosphere full of speech restrictions and a culture that teaches students to shy away from controversy,” Greg wrote.

FIRE now has the data to support that hypothesis.

According to FIRE’s recent, first-of-its-kind study on student attitudes toward free speech, nearly half of students report self-censoring in the classroom. And the biggest reason? Students expect their peers to judge them:

  • Forty-eight percent of students might self-censor in the classroom because another student might judge them.
  • Thirty percent of students might self-censor in the classroom because they might offend another student.
  • Twenty-seven percent of students might self-censor in the classroom because the professor might disagree with them.

Almost a third of students said they continued to self-censor elsewhere on campus “because another person might find what they say to be politically incorrect, because they might hurt another person’s feelings, or because they might be judged by another person.”

Widespread acceptance of broad administrative censorship — and student requests for it — is another disturbing hallmark of the current campus climate.

The rise of “bias response teams” speaks to this trend. As a recent FIRE report on the topic notes, these “Orwellian programs under which students are asked to report on one another for offensive speech — are proliferating at campuses nationwide.”

“Disinvitations” are also on the rise. FIRE uses the term to refer to instances in which invited speakers were shouted down, disinvited, or otherwise prevented from speaking on campus. They reached an all-time high last year and, according to our running Disinvitation Database, similar numbers are expected in 2017.

Like Allison Stanger at Middlebury, students and faculty who suggest we simply hear what our ideological opponents have to say are routinely accused by fellow students and professors of supporting those controversial speakers’ ideas themselves. The month before Stanger was injured, there was also violence at the University of California, Berkeley, which forced the cancellation of a speech by former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos.

When Yiannopoulos faced opposition at Berkeley, the Dalai Lama was also coming under fire 500 miles to the south at another major UC school: the University of California, San Diego. The Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose main platforms are world peace and non-violence even in the most extreme circumstances, was called by a pro-China UCSD student group “recklessly … provocative and extremely politically hostile.”

Faculty are also facing unprecedented student pressure to self-censor.

In 2015, Yale University students effectively ousted popular early childhood education professor Erika Christakis from her position as a master of Yale’s Silliman College, an undergraduate residence hall. Her offense? She sent an email to Silliman students asking them to consider whether it was really the place of an institution of higher education to tell its adult students how they should dress for Halloween:

I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.

Students accused Christakis of racism and (very publicly) turned on her husband, Nicholas, when he attempted to engage in a discussion about the incident with students.

FIRE wrote at the time:

Yale students have every right to express their anger and frustration with Yale faculty. But FIRE is concerned by yet another unfortunate example of students who demand upsetting opinions be entirely eradicated from the university in the name of fostering “safe spaces” where students are protected from hurt feelings. Practicing free speech does not merely entail the right to protest opinions you object to—it also means acknowledging people’s right to hold those opinions in the first place.

Earlier this year, it happened again; students’ vitriolic demands for the firing of professor Bret Weinstein had FIRE asking if it was “Yale 2.0 at [Washington’s] Evergreen State College?

Weinstein disagreed with the new protocol for the school’s “Day of Absence,” an event based on a play by Douglas Turner Ward in which black people disappear for a day and reveal how much the community depends on them. This year, the administration decided to do things differently:

Please notice that in 2017, for the first time, we are reversing the pattern of previous years; our Day of Absence program especially designed for faculty, staff, and students of color will happen on campus this year, while our concurrent program for allies will take place off campus.

Weinstein took exception to the new programming, and wrote an email to the college’s staff and faculty email listserv questioning the decision:

There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles … and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away. The first is a forceful call to consciousness which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.

… On a college campus, one’s right to speak–or to be–must never be based on skin color.

Nearly two months later, “seemingly out of the blue,” things changed. Fifty students disrupted Weinstein’s class, accused him of racism, and demanded his resignation, shouting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Bret Weinstein has got to go.” The police told him they could not protect him. Weinstein would eventually sue the school, settle out of court, and resign.

Fear of this unforgiving atmosphere appears to have impacted faculty’s ability to teach. Even the most respected, thoughtful academics are now giving into these pressures.

In March, a committee of Wellesley College faculty members sent a startlingly anti-intellectual email to a faculty listserv, suggesting that they should vet all future invitations to speakers. As we noted, such a practice would “establish a campus orthodoxy and a climate in which any speaking invitation might be subject to prior review by a select few faculty.”

Just this week, FIRE raised objections to Brandeis University’s recent cancellation of a play based on the life work of storied comedian Lenny Bruce after students and alumni raised concerns — apparently without having read the script — that the piece was “overtly racist” and would “harmful if performed.”

As my colleague Samantha Harris posited last week, situations like the one at Brandeis raise serious questions about whether universities “are abdicating their responsibility to educate students for fear of offending them,” and whether, increasingly, “students are seen as customers to please rather than as minds to open.”

Amid protests earlier this year at Reed College in Oregon that shut down some lectures, Lucía Martínez Valdivia, an assistant professor of English and humanities, wrote a stirring editorial in The Washington Post, encouraging fellow faculty not to be “intimidated … into silence.”

No one should have to pass someone else’s ideological purity test to be allowed to speak. University life — along with civic life — dies without the free exchange of ideas.

In the face of intimidation, educators must speak up, not shut down. Ours is a position of unique responsibility: We teach people not what to think, but how to think.

Predictions and prescriptions.

Given the prescience of Greg’s predictions, those who care about civil liberties would be wise to take another look at his prescriptions for changing course.

First, we must consider broader forces contributing to and reinforcing the most troubling on-campus trends. In “Unlearning Liberty,” Greg singles out two big ones: failing K-12 civics education and the rising cost of higher education.

When it comes to civics education, American schools are failing.

Greg cited a 2004 survey of 100,000 high school students revealing that “73 percent either felt ambivalent about the First Amendment or took it for granted.”

“This should not come as a surprise,” he wrote, “given how little high school students learn about free speech rights and how many negative examples they get from administrators.” (Internal citation omitted.)

High school administrators have, for example, openly justified rampant censorship of student newspapers, for example, “for reasons ranging from harmony, to patriotism, to convenience.”

“Meanwhile, there is precious little education in the philosophical principles that undergird our basic liberties, which might otherwise counteract these bad examples,” Greg wrote, citing statistics that more than a third of adult Americans could not name a single right protected by the First Amendment. A recent survey from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center shows that number has held steady. As Greg observed, that is not poised to change any time soon:

The K-12 system has little interest in producing students who know they have rights, and college and university administrators take full advantage of that fact. In the short term, they gain tremendous power to avoid campus controversies, stifle disagreeable opinions, and dodge criticism. In the long term, however, they are neglecting to cultivate the difficult intellectual habits of robust inquiry and critical reasoning.

Fortunately, FIRE has dedicated new initiatives on this front (thanks to a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation) aimed at reaching high school students. But parents must also demand their taxpayer dollars be put to good use. K-12 educators must teach their students with renewed urgency.

But inadequate civics education is not the only culprit.

The cost of higher education has continued to dramatically rise, forcing students to divert their focus from the benefits of opening their minds to risks opening their wallets.

“Multiple studies now show that college students are paying more than ever and going into a lifetime of debt to learn less than they ever have before,” Greg wrote, adding that this is happening “at the very institutions that rely most on free speech, open exchange, and candor to fulfill their mission.”:

At the same time, we are paying more and more for higher education, which, perversely, expands the very campus bureaucracy that fosters this anti-free-speech environment.


If we care about both the quality and the accessibility of higher education, we must cut costs, and a great place to start is slashing the administrative bureaucracy. This would not only help bring university prices back toward sanity, but also leave fewer administrators who might attempt to justify their salaries by policing student speech.

Higher education must instead recommit to its narrow mission: educating students.

Some institutions have already begun this process by renewing their commitments to freedom of expression.

The FIRE-endorsed gold standard is the University of Chicago’s policy statement on freedom of expression, colloquially known as the “Chicago Statement.” To date, 32 institutions or a campus faculty body have adopted the affirmation to protect campus speech, or a substantially similar statement.

FIRE also routinely works with schools — free of charge — to guide them on making speech-friendly choices, including eradicating policies that impermissibly chill speech on campus. Simply contact us at, and we’ll take it from there.

Our best hope.

Modern universities are producing college graduates who lack [the] experience of uninhibited debate and casual provocation. As a result, our society is effectively unlearning liberty. This could have grave long-term consequences for all of our rights and the very cohesion of our nation. If too few citizens understand or believe in free speech, it is only a matter of time before politicians, activists, lawyers, and judges begin to curtail and restrict it, while other citizens quietly go along.

But if universities have served as the starting point for this profound shift, Greg posited that they could also be the ideal place to begin working toward a solution.

What I am arguing is that higher education is our best hope to remedy oversimplification, mindless partisanship, and uncritical thinking, but it cannot do so if students and professors alike are threatened with punishment for doing little more than speaking their minds. Indeed, what should be the cure for calcified political discourse is likely making the problem even worse.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Greg has been saying it for years:

“If the only price that we have to pay for this freedom is that we sometimes hear words that we find offensive, it is well worth it.”

Allison Stanger, the injured Middlebury professor, similarly urged universities to renew their commitment to truth-seeking through scholarly debate.

“[F]or us to engage with one another as fellow human beings — even on issues where we passionately disagree — we need reason, not just emotions,” Stanger wrote. Her students, she added, could have taken a different, non-violent approach to engaging with Charles Murray’s controversial scholarship:

[The] students could have learned from identifying flawed assumptions or logical shortcomings in Dr. Murray’s arguments. They could have challenged him in the Q. and A. If the ways in which his misinterpreted ideas have been weaponized precluded hearing him out, students also had the option of protesting outside, walking out of the talk or simply refusing to attend.

Likewise, American college students, broadly, can choose a better path. If they have unlearned liberty, as Greg suggests, they can commit to relearn it.

Stanger, who came to see the light on the subject by brute force, knows it’s one students cannot afford to fail.

“[O]ur constitutional democracy,” she wrote, “will depend on whether Americans can relearn how to engage civilly with one another.”

Recent Articles

FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.