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So to Speak podcast transcript: Crisis on Campus - X Space recording

Ep 201: Crisis on Campus - X Space recording

Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.

Nico Perrino: All right, folks, I think we can get started here. Thanks, everyone for joining this X, formerly known as Twitter space. I am FIRE’s Executive Vice President, Nico Perino. Here with my boss, FIRE President and CEO, Greg Lukianoff. Greg, how's it going?

Greg Lukianoff: A little busy.

Nico Perrino: A little busy? Yeah? How's your how's your weekend? Did you get some nice rest and relaxation?

Greg Lukianoff: Oh, totally. Nothing happened. Yeah, it was kind of crazy. Particularly after the Bill Maher thing on Friday. That was breakneck because I had to get home to my kid’s birthday party. And then almost as soon as we got home, it all started up with the University of Pennsylvania President stepping down. And it's been just madness. Honestly, it's been madness ever since the hearings last week.

Nico Perrino: Yeah, we were originally going to do this about your new book, The Canceling of the American Mind, which of course, you were on Bill Maher show to discuss but –

Greg Lukianoff: Which everyone should purchase. Because basically, right now what's happening is a lot of schools are going, “You know what? Maybe we should regulate speech more.” And I'm kind of like, “You already have been regulating speech like crazy people and it's been a disaster. The solution can't be, do more of what you're doing.”

Nico Perrino: It's funny. We can't really have a conversation right now about any of FIRE’s issues without bringing up what's happened over the last week. But really, over the last two months. Since the attacks on October 7th. We were doing a webinar for our top supporters, our Ember Club members, about FIRE’s growth and successes. And in some cases, failures since our expansion in June of 2022. But all anyone wanted to talk about, and justifiably so, is what's been going on.

Now, Greg, you know what the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is like on campus. The passions that arises. We have a saying at FIRE, that “We will drive this bus – this organization into the wall if it means staying principled”. And that phrase, I believe, came in the context of this conflict. So, you want to talk a little bit about the history there?

Greg Lukianoff: Not actually, specifically this conflict. But when I start, good training for this – and Rikki Schlott, my co-author of Canceling in the American Mind, a 23-year-old genius. She remembers me talking about how my first cases were all about 911. And about, “Oof, that must have been hard. That's some unsympathetic speech to be defending.” And honestly, it was great training for getting into the free speech biz. Because you gotta get used to the fact that if I'm doing my job, right, everyone's gonna hate me from time to time.

And literally my very – well, first of all, I landed at 9:10 a.m. on September 11th, to find an apartment in Philadelphia. To be the first legal director of FIRE. Got stuck in Philly for a whole week after that because planes weren’t flying for a whole week, which younger people aren't even gonna know, it's crazy. My very first letter was defending a guy who said, “Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon has my vote.” He was joking. But eventually, they forced him out.

And my very first time on TV was defending Sami Al-Arian. He was a professor at University of South Florida, who they were trying to fire for saying “Death to Israel” in a tape recording from 1989. This is 2001, at this point, by the way.

Now the real claim against Sami Al-Arian was that he had ties to Middle Eastern terrorist groups. But they decided to go with – USF – decided to go after him for his speech, because they had previously done a whitewash of Sami Al-Arian on the terrorism charge. So, they thought they could get away with just firing him for speech. And FIRE, very early on was like, “Not on our watch.”

Meanwhile, though, we knew that this case was so unsympathetic. And when we first were asked to take it, we're like, “There's no question, we're going to take it.” And we're a young organization, that it might just destroy us by being so popular – so unpopular. We're like, “We're willing to drive this bus into a wall if it means stay principled.”

Nico Perrino: Yeah. I mean, defending the First Amendment can sometimes mean taking on really hard cases at its outer bounds. I mean, sometimes it requires defending offensive, vile, bigoted speech. But there is a long proud tradition in America, it’s principled civil libertarians defending our core constitutional rights in the most difficult of circumstances. I made a movie, Mighty Ira, –

Greg Lukianoff: An excellent movie. Award-winning movie.

Nico Perrino: Award-winning movie. Yeah. My colleagues and I worked on that for a number of years. Folks who don't know Ira Glasser. He's a former executive director of the ACLU, a non-lawyer in fact. And while the Skokie case was going on, he was the director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which had the most Jewish members of any ACLU affiliate in the country at the time. He became executive director, the broader ACLU, the national ACLU, right at the tail end of the Skokie case.

But I got to know, in the process of making this film, some of the lawyers and advocates in the late ‘70s. Jewish lawyers and advocates who took on the Skokie case. That defended the rights of Neo-Nazis to rally in Skokie, Illinois, then home to I believe about 6,000 Holocaust survivors. And why did they do it? Well, they did it, because they knew that giving the government the power to censor is a greater danger than letting someone make a total fool of themselves in this case. And they were total fools. These Neo-Nazis, led by Frank Cullen.

But we're not here necessarily to explore the past. We are here to discuss the present. And I think we should maybe, Greg, just jump right into discussing that testimony. That the three college presidents – the presidents of MIT, Harvard, and Penn – made in Congress last week. I mean, what are your top-line thoughts? And we can kind of dig in from there.

Greg Lukianoff: I'll put my various hats on. 1.) As a lawyer, all I could ask myself was, “Who on earth prepped the presidents of Harvard and Penn?” I just thought that they really didn’t know how to conduct themselves during it. They sometimes got the answers right. But not in a persuasive, convincing, compassionate, compelling way. It just seemed like they just totally flubbed it, partially, just from a competency standpoint. I thought it was a little bit painful, from an answering question… I mean, the fact that they're constantly asked for a “yes” or “no” answer, by Stefanik, on whether or not speech advocating for genocide is protected, yes or no?

Part of the initial answer that is in the law, particularly First Amendment law, there aren’t a lot of yes or no answers.

Nico Perrino: No.

Greg Lukianoff: And we should be thankful that there's not because if the law was that simple, a lot more innocent people would be going to jail for their speech. And it was also frustrating because it focused so much on the idea of pro-genocide speech. When what they were really talking about were two expressions. 1.) Intifada, students shouting Intifada. And 2.) The expression “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

And while I absolutely understand why those statements are offensive. And I'm very sympathetic to people who think they are. I think they're offensive. I don't think that's what a lot of students think they're shouting. I don't think they think they're shouting “Genocide”.

There's an interesting thing going around on X right now. About a little survey of students being shown the map for where the river is and where the sea is and coming to the realizations like, “Oh, you mean get rid of the state?” That wasn't what they immediately understood that to mean. And once they actually find out, a lot of students are like, “Oh, I don't agree with that. That's not my position.”

But that's being conflated to a scenario in which someone's just demanding kill all Jews. And it's been frustrating that it's happening at a more abstract level. When the speech in question, shouting “Intifada” and “From the river to the sea” is clearly protected. However, one thing that's worth saying, and this is what they're getting at with context. Can you have a situation where someone's shouting Intifada where it is part of a true threat? Or is part of a pattern of discriminatory harassment? Or even part of a pattern of incitement? Absolutely. But it does require more.

People have given me the example of surrounding Jewish students and shouting “Kill all Jews.” Well, the standard for threats is, would a reasonable person under the circumstances believe that they were in imminent harm of bodily injury or death? And you can make the argument in some of these cases and say, “Yeah, actually, that line was crossed.”

And to the extent to which we have seen people suggesting killing. The one case that I'm familiar of, where it was crystal clear, that's exactly what they were saying, was at Cornell. Where a student was arrested for making things that clearly crossed the line into threats to kill Jewish students. And that is not protected, nor should it be.

Nico Perrino: Yeah. Before we continue, Greg, I just want to urge our listeners that if they have questions, they can type them into the chat feature, which I think is at the bottom of your X page. As I am informed by our social media guy. So, type those in and they'll be fed to us. And we'll try and answer them throughout this conversation. Yeah, but so the President's answers was, it depends on the context. And that's always the case when we're talking about protected speech, Greg, right? It's always a fact-intensive analysis.

Greg Lukianoff: And you want it to be. So, I had a friend, who I love very much. But was very critical of our take on this because it's like “No, calls for genocide don't require any context.” And I talked about the story at Drexel, which is a professor responding to people who were talking about replacement theory. The idea that there's a conspiracy to replace White people with Non-White people. I think is basically the theory. And his response on Christmas Eve, maybe 2019, I don’t remember –

Nico Perrino: 2018, I think.

Greg Lukianoff: 2018, as it kind of ruined my Christmas Eve. Was, “All I want for Christmas is White Genocide.” Now, that was a joke. It was not necessarily a great joke in great taste. But a joke making fun of great replacement theory. And when I said this to people, I've occasionally gotten the, “Oh, yeah, but that wasn't serious.” I'm like, “Yes, but seriousness is part of context.”

Nico Perrino: Yes.

Greg Lukianoff: You know, that is context. So, are you more likely to have a situation when someone's actually saying, “Kill all blank”? That could actually cross the line into something that might be interpreted as a truth. You bet. You bet it could.

But it always relies on context. We don't want there to be a situation where just saying a particular forbidden word, for example, is something that can get you arrested or kicked out of school.

Nico Perrino: Yeah. And I think all we need to do is pose the hypotheticals. And that case is great at Drexel because it's not a hypothetical, right?

Greg Lukianoff: Yes.

Nico Perrino: On its face, it appears to be a call for genocide. But context reveals it to be not quite that. But let's look at the political discourse that's happening right now. Where you have people who say that Israel's invasion of Gaza is a genocide against the Palestinians. If you give those in power a broad abstract speech code that bans general calls for genocide, you can bet it'll be used.

Greg Lukianoff: Yeah.

Nico Perrino: On opponents of Israel to punish Jewish or Israeli speakers, or vice versa, right? Like the State of Israel folks say, is a genocidal enterprise. And then, you know, we've talked internally, and on X, about pro-lifers think that abortion is a genocide of the unborn. Trans rights activists sometimes argue that people who believe and advocate only for gender binary are erasing trans people. And committing genocide against trans people.

You can see, and we've seen this time and time and time again, Greg. And you were the foremost expert about this. That if you give folks a broad speech code that is untethered from the legal standards, it will be used in an arbitrary and discriminatory way to go after political minorities and dissenters on campus.

Greg Lukianoff: Yes, absolutely. And our much beloved COO, Alicia Glennon was pointing this out over the weekend. As well as were you, and Alex Morey. But I think she said something like, “You can be pretty sure this is gonna happen.” And I'm much more kind of like, “No, you’re can be dead certain it's going to happen.” So, Wharton, I think, is pursuing something. Saying that we're going to ban any genocide-related speech. And I'm like, “Okay, so –

Nico Perrino: Hate speech. No, they want to put in place a hate speech code.

Greg Lukianoff: It’s just hate speech code? Yeah. It's kind of like, okay, so if your dog in the fight is that you want to make sure that Israel is well represented on campus. Then that's going to lead to the dissemination of pro-Israeli speakers all across the country. Because the belief on campus in many cases, and the arguments, of course, is that they jump very quickly to they’re pro-genocide. And I will say that how often the word genocide is used for situations like the argument that maybe too many kids are receiving whatever it is, like hormone replacement –

Nico Perrino: Therapy.

Greg Lukianoff: – arguing against that is actually a form of genocide as well. So, yeah, this will get abused almost immediately, and unquestionably.

Nico Perrino: I mean, that is the lesson of speech codes. In fact, FIRE was founded in the wake of the Water Buffalo incident at the University of Pennsylvania in 1993. And some of our younger listeners might not be familiar with this story. But in 1993, an Israeli-Jewish student, Eden Jacobowitz, was studying in his dorm room. And there was some loud sorority sisters outside the dorm room that were interrupting his and others studying.

A bunch of students yelled at them. But Eden yelled, “Shut up you water buffalo,” out of his dorm room window. And the students pressed charges on campus alleging racial harassment. But Eden, being a Israeli-Jewish student, was merely translating the Yiddish slang term, behema, which is slang for a loud and unruly person. It was not a racial epithet that he was shouting out. And water buffalo hadn't been used, or described, or thought of as a racial epithet before that.

And that case ended up being taken up by our co-founder, Alan Charles Kors, and it was made international news. And the charges were eventually dropped against Eden. But you can just see how these kind of broad amorphous speech codes that are untethered from legal standards – now Penn can have its own speech codes if it wants. But there's wisdom in the jurisprudence of the First Amendment. And there's a reason that the standards are rigorous so that they're not abused.

And in the 1980s, one of the first hate speech codes that was put in place on campus was at the University of Michigan. And that speech code was struck down in 1988. And that speech code was put in place in fact to protect Black students on campus. But its first victim was a Black student in the School of Social Work.

So, if folks are going and looking for expansions of speech codes or are looking to censorship as a tool to defeat anti-Semitism on campus, I’d warn that these expansions of censorship are very, very short-sighted. And if the argument is that college administrators are enabling anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, I mean, you could pick any bigotry on campus, why would you want to give them then, the power to exercise sensorial tools? I mean, it's just asinine.

Greg Lukianoff: So, I know we're not jumping into questions just yet, but I felt like Alleycat@nerdcore84 actually just made a great, important point that I want to hit. She writes, “Can you comment on the rest of the universities which take precisely the wrong message from this and tightened speech restrictions rather than reverse their hypocritical limitations on other speech deemed hateful or otherwise problematic?” That's the billion-dollar question right now. And that’s something that we're all pretty concerned about that.

Now, Liz Magill, her first name is Liz, right?

Nico Perrino: Yeah.

Greg Lukianoff: Stepping down is something that it's hard for free speech advocates to feel bad about. Penn very much earned its next-to-bottom status for free speech in the FIRE free speech rankings. In our very rigorous evaluation of 13 different factors to figure out how good schools are doing on free speech.

Nico Perrino: And folks can check that out at if they want.

Greg Lukianoff: Yes, absolutely. Please do. And of course, after all this stuff happened, after she sort of embarrassed herself in the testimony, she decided to go public with the idea that we need to delink the standards for Penn’s policies from constitutional standards. And that would be a complete disaster. It's honestly one of the scariest things, from our free speech perspective, I've heard come out of the mouth of an elite college president. And so, when she stepped down, there can be no way we can sort of lament this.

Also, some of the people who are demanding that she step down, at least what they're proposing on paper, is the idea of debureaucratizing universities dramatically, which I think is kind of the only way to protect speech. So, we have some qualified hope when it comes to Penn.

I'm a little bit more worried about what happens if Claudine Gay is forced to step down. Although Bill Ackman, again, I gotta give it to him. He makes a hell of an argument for her stepping down. Something that is very persuasive, unfortunately. That includes her bad record on free speech.

Like her role in not standing up for Ronald Sullivan at Harvard, several years ago. This was a guy who actually, briefly, was part of the team that represented Harvey Weinstein.

Now to people who hear that, who aren't lawyers, it might be a little bit of like, “Well, yeah. You shouldn't work anywhere if you represent that low life.” That is not the way lawyers think about that kind of thing.

And what enrages me, that's a pretty strong word, but I'm still mad about it. Is what they needed to do in that circumstance. Because like one of my best friends from law school, and my groomsmen, is a public defender in San Francisco. We don't think of that as like, “Oh, that's kind of okay if you want to do that. It's kind of gross that you defend guilty people.” No, we think of that as noble. Defending odious people saying that “Even guilty people need good representation” is something that actually we consider noble and commendable in the law.

And because Harvard never said that – and this is one of the things that Harvard has screwed up time and time again, like failing to actually come out strongly in favor of people like Carole Hooven. Or Ronald Sullivan. And so, I understand the skepticism with Claudine Gay. But I will say this, unlike Magill, Claudine Gay came in and initially said a lot of good things about free speech. Partially in response to their dead-last finish in the FIRE rankings.

Nico Perrino: And also engagement with the new academic freedom group at Harvard.

Greg Lukianoff: Yeah, we see some things that make us a little bit hopeful for Claudine Gay. And if she ends up stepping down the fear is that that will be interpreted as saying, “No you didn't clamp down on freedom of speech enough.” But to be clear, no matter what happens at these universities, FIRE is available for people who want to reform. About ways to reform to make the environment better for free speech.

Because there's this absolutely awful article, over the weekend, from a University of Pennsylvania professor who's supposed to be in charge of academic freedom and free speech. Making the now 60-year-old argument that the problem on campus is too much free speech. It's like, no. Most of the things that people are pointing to as problems are the result of censorship.

Like screaming at each other rather than constructive dialogue is part of the problem of cancel culture. It's something that we make ad nauseam, in Canceling of the American Mind. It doesn't really make you nauseous, it's a delightful book. And at the same time, like a lot of what they're pointing to is actually stuff that they should have been prohibiting anyway.

So, some of the things that Ackman points out are actual disruptions of classes. No, you should not be tolerating that. You should not be tolerating shout downs. You should not be tolerating actual incitement threats. Or harassment, vandalism, certainly some of the assaults that we've been seeing. Because, of course grabbing someone is assault. That should not be tolerated. But the problem is not on campus that there's too much free speech. That's ridiculous.

Nico Perrino: We should talk, just briefly, about double standards here, Greg, because I think one of the things that frustrates a lot of folks –

Greg Lukianoff: Oh, you can't say that enough.

Nico Perrino: Yeah. One of the things that I think frustrates a lot of people is that these colleges, these college presidents, are falling back on free speech standards, now. Where their universities were all too eager to censor previously.

Greg Lukianoff: Yes.

Nico Perrino: For example, MIT famously canceled the planned 2020 lecture by University of Chicago Professor Dorian Abbot. After faculty and graduate students complained about his views on things like affirmative action and certain diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

You mentioned, Greg, Harvard administrators drove out lecturer Carol Hooven. For arguing that biological sex is real. And promoting her book Testosterone on Fox News.

You have Penn, this is like the most bonkers case that I've heard recently. They prohibited a group of students from screening a documentary critical of Israel, called Israelism. And the students decided they were going to go ahead and screen it anyway in an act of civil disobedience. They got a faculty member at I think the Middle East Studies Center to reserve the room for them because the university wouldn't give it to them on their own. The leader of that faculty center had to resign as a result of it. And the students again, in an act of civil disobedience, screened it anyway.

To think about that, that on a college or university campus, to screen a documentary and have a discussion about it needs to be an act of civil disobedience, is absurd.

And then, of course, you have all these cases. Where you have got schools like UCLA, putting out guidance that says asking someone where they're from is a racial microaggression. You have Harvard that says that fatphobia is a form of violence. You have schools where it’s silly things. Like distributing sushi in the school dining hall is a form of cultural appropriation. Doing yoga is cultural appropriation.

It's like there's all this little speech policing that's going on all over the country. So, you can understand people are frustrated then when they hear what they believe should be unprotected calls for genocide. And the college and university presidents fall back on freedom of speech arguments. But the argument is not when colleges and universities are exercising double standards and being hypocritical to censor more speech. No, the answer is to end the censorship. End all of the silly censorship and hypocritical double standards that have existed for decades.

Greg Lukianoff: Yeah. Actually, a commenter just said, “But consistently enforced hate speech code laws are far better than inconsistently enforced ones.” No, none of them are good, because – this is a point that Alan Charles Kors makes, the University of Pennsylvania professor who co-founded FIRE. Is that speech codes have always relied on double standards because they can't work without them. Because if you actually enforce them by the plain language of the codes, nobody would be allowed to say anything. Everybody would be prosecuted under them.

And so, therefore, they wouldn't last a minute. So, the answer can't be reducing everyone to silence on any important topic. But that seems to be where some people's minds are going. And that means FIRE is going to have to work even harder over the next several years to prove how utterly foolish such an idea is. Particularly in a place that relies on the marketplace of ideas to produce knowledge.

Nico Perrino: Greg, we should talk briefly – we have a question from a listener. Asking about Title VI and obligations in that regarding hostile environment harassment. Now my understanding is Title VI doesn't cover religion. But it's been interpreted through the agency guidance to cover religion, and ethnic origin, and national origin. So, can you talk a little bit about the standards for hostile environment harassment, in particular, in this context?

Greg Lukianoff: Well, when it comes to student-on-student harassment. If it's targeted, severe, persistent, and pervasive, and discriminatory, then it can actually rise the level of harassment. And whereas we see that the harassment standard abused on campus all the time. And we've made this argument repeatedly. And in fact, the speech codes that were products of the ‘80s and ‘90s, what I call The First Great Age of Political Correctness, in Reason magazine, and also in Canceling of the American Mind. They’re all harassment-based codes.

Harassment was kind of the sort of code word to sort of get around free speech. Because harassment is a real thing. But if you define harassment simply as offensive speech, then it's just simply a speech code. And all of these were overturned that were challenged from 1989 to 1995. Including at my alma mater, the very last one at my alma mater, Stanford Law School.

But we do absolutely. And I've argued consistently that severe, persistent, pervasive targeted, discriminatory harassment is something that can and should be punished. And whereas a lot of times we've seen that invoked in situations that come nowhere close to the line. We're seeing a lot more situations where it comes a hell of a lot closer to the line, lately. I mean, the ugliness of some of the interaction we’re seeing on campus including things like the truth at Cornell. And students actually being grabbed or trapped in libraries. None of that is protected nor should it be.

Nico Perrino: We have a question here from a listener. “Is there a university you can use an example of the right way to handle the current tumultuous Israeli-Palestinian discourse, who is excelling at promoting free speech?” I was actually on Jake Tapper on Friday. Debating this issue with Fred Lawrence, who was the former president of Brandeis. And I was talking with Jake, either before or after the appearance – and he's a trustee at Dartmouth. And he was talking about some of the things that the new president at Dartmouth is doing.

Greg Lukianoff: Yeah.

Nico Perrino: He was saying that they haven't seen, excuse me, some of the conflagrations that some of these other campuses have seen. He believes in part, because of the efforts by the President and everyone at the top of that administration to set up opportunities for civil discourse across lines of difference. Whether that'll work at every college or university, it's hard to say. But, Greg, I know you are pretty optimistic about what's going on over at Dartmouth.

Greg Lukianoff: I have great hope there. And I say that very cautiously because I've had hope in other universities before, and I've been bitterly disappointed. But at the same time, I think University of Virginia’s trying hard to be good on free speech. And they actually ended up in the top 10 of our campus free speech ranking. One of the only well-known elite schools to do that. University of Chicago does well.

But some of the stuff that Dartmouth is trying right now, I really like it. And the idea of opening up from day one, something like we've been advocating for from beginning, not saying “Here is your bias-related incidents hotline to call and report your fellow students and professors for saying offensive things.” To set them up initially to be kind of like, “Listen, understanding the world is difficult. Truth is very hard to attain. It's a never-ending process.”

Read Jonathan Rauch. It's something that it's never actually finished. And it's always up for continuing debate and refinement. And you'll never be done. And one of the many things that I think Dartmouth is doing right, is that they started having serious dialogues about Israel-Palestine months ago.

You don't wait for the crisis to hit. You try to see what might come up and then try to get people talking across lines of difference. For that matter, even trying to take the other person's point of view, like a good scholar should be able to do. And that actually depolarizes. And that's the way to use free speech to depolarize rather than polarize. Because it's really hard once you've taken someone else's perspective, or know them better, or at least argued with them face to face, to think that your opponent must be stupid or evil.

Something else that I thought was pretty clever that Dartmouth is doing, is they're doing a lot more co-teaching with professors who don't see eye-to-eye on various topics. This is something that I know Cornel West and Robbie George did very effectively at Princeton. And it was one of those ideas that I realized that I hadn't given too much thought to, as being very smart.

Because we do have a serious problem. A serious sort of gloom on the horizon for free speech on campus is that, according to our own surveys and a lot of existing data. The rising sort of crop of younger professors tend to be even more politically homogenous. And not as good on free speech and academic freedom, as boomers and we awesome Gen-Xers. Sorry, we’re the best generation. And that's distressing.

But one way to make that matter a little bit less is to have more co-teaching with professors who disagree. And I think that that's modeling intellectual humility. I think that's modeling the ability that we want all students to have. To be able to be conversant in multiple sides of any given topic, like a good scholar should be.

And I talk about this in my first book, Unlearning Liberty, which came out in 2012. And my argument in there was, are we training activists or are we training scholars? And what's funny is in the ‘90s, in the early part of my career, campuses were constantly saying, “We're not training activists. We're not doing that. That's not something we do at all.” And now they don't even bother to say that they're not doing that. They actually kind of lean into the fact that that's kind of the mentality that they're training.

But that's not a very scholarly approach to it. That essentially, the idea of coming to issues with taking seriously the possibility you might be wrong and knowing that you have stuff to learn. That's a much more scholarly attitude. And it's something about, understand the world before you try to change it.

Nico Perrino: The conversation right now is all about whether calls for genocide are protected speech. But early in this conflict, after October 7th, one of the big topics of conversation was institutional neutrality. That is, should colleges and universities be neutral on social and political issues and whether the attacks by Hamas, on October 7th, were something that colleges and universities should weigh in on? Much in the same way that they weighed in on the George Floyd protests. The Dobbs abortion decision. The elections. The list goes on and on and on and on.

And folks who are in support of institutional neutrality refer back to the Kalven report, which was issued by the University of Chicago in 1967. In response to just a number of demands by the community, internally and externally. To weigh in and take official institutional positions on social and political issues.

And ultimately, what the report – and it's about a page and a half long, I'd urge folks to check it out. You just Google the Kalven report. Kalven spelled with a K. Ultimately, what the university determined was that their institution is created for the purpose of the dissemination, preservation, and creation of knowledge.

And that the university itself, and its administration, is the host of critics, but they themselves are not the critics. The critics are the students and faculty who are engaged in the knowledge-generation process. Who have the debates and the discussions about the social and political issues. And what we found is that, as colleges and universities have weighed in more on these issues, they're getting themselves into quagmires. Right? Like you weigh in on one issue – you weigh in on George Floyd, you weigh in on the Dobbs decision. You can expect that if you don't weigh in on, say the attacks on October 7th, that people are going to impugn political motivations for not doing so.

And also, we've seen over the years that as institutions have been perceived, and in some cases are more politicized, trust in those institutions decline. And colleges and universities cannot survive if they lose the public trust. And unfortunately, as recent polling has shown, public trust in colleges and universities is declining precipitously. So, Greg, I'm wondering if you have anything you want to add about the Kalven report, institutional neutrality, and whether colleges and universities should, in fact, adopt statements like the one that the University of Chicago did in 1967?

Greg Lukianoff: Yeah. When I started in 2001, I wasn't a big fan of the Kalven report. I didn't really see the harm in university presidents opining on issues of the day. Particularly, if that was instead of the temptation to punish students or professors for what they had to say. So, there would be some cases, like at University of Pennsylvania, where a university president would – I remember there was a party that Republicans have, where the entire goal was to be as offensive as possible.

And so that meant people showed up dressed like Nazis and other offensive costumes. And what the President – and this was actually Graham Spanier at the time – called the students out. Saying that this was offensive and juvenile, but protected. And I was like, “You know what, if that's what he's going to do, instead of punish them, I can live with that.”

Nico Perrino: And that was Penn State, right, Greg?

Greg Lukianoff: That, oh, sorry, Penn State. But over the years, I came to realize that every time a university president, or for that matter department, opines on a particular political issue, they are doing something that is antithetical to what a university, so as to be, they are establishing a political orthodoxy. They're basically saying “On this campus, we believe…” It's like those signs that people outside of their house – “On this campus, we believe we're following things.”

And that is not what the role of the university, or again for that matter a department, should be. That essentially, they should be hosts to the critics, not the critics themselves, as the Kalven report says. So, I've become very pro-Kalven report.

But I think it's a good beginning. It's not nearly enough. And also, when it comes to the timing of the discovery of the Kalven report, for some of these schools October 7th happened. Utterly horrifying attack. And universities who have opined on every other major incident, from the war in Ukraine to certainly George Floyd, to things of much lesser global importance that’s appealed to them from a political stance. They were much more cautious measured.

And I think in many situations, university presidents who were very supportive of Israel and were horrified by the attacks, they were scared to actually say what their opinion was on that. And I think they were scared of, pardon the expression, cancel culture. I think they're afraid of their own students. I think they were afraid of their own activists. They are afraid of their own administrators. And they're afraid of their own faculty. About the blowback because the pro-Palestinian stance on some colleges is not necessarily a majority stance, but very strong.

And on the polling, it's very popular among young people. It's very popular among professors. So, the decision to then decide that they have institutional neutrality was rightfully criticized by our advisory council member Larry Summers and our board member Sam Abrams. So, I could get that there was. But I think that ultimately if universities adopt neutrality and stick with it, they'll be better off long-term.

But here's where my skepticism really comes in. And I have a Substack – oh, I can say that on this version of X. I have a Substack called The Eternally Radical Idea, where I talk about a lot of these cases. And they've been coming at a breakneck pace of course lately. And my cynicism comes from again, my experience to 9/11.

Campuses are really good at circling the wagons. Claiming that it's a new McCarthyism. The term comes up a lot. When the threat to academic freedom is perceived or actually coming from off campus, which includes people like donors, which include people like alumni. And then, they actually sort of clothed themselves in language of academic freedom and free speech. But when the threat comes from on campus. From student activists, from professors, from administrators – and oftentimes it's student activists and administrators, and sometimes professors, kind of working together. They're completely cowardly.

So, I need years of schools being good on this kind of stuff to even begin to believe them. That they're sincerely changing their ways. Particularly at schools that have been as consistently bad as Harvard and Penn.

Nico Perrino: I think we're still here. Your mention of Substack, Greg, didn't deplatform us.

Greg Lukianoff: I thought we'd immediately get shut down. We mentioned the forbidden site.

Nico Perrino: You mentioned donors, Greg. I think a lot of folks have questions about donors' involvement. And everything that's going on at these colleges and universities. For years, FIRE has said that alumni, and donors, and boards of trustees can provide helpful pressure in getting colleges and universities to recommit to principles of free expression. There have been some calls from donors, in this current context, which aren't always free speech friendly. How are you looking at all that? And what guidance can we give to donors now so that they keep these college and universities on the right track?

Greg Lukianoff: Yeah. So, when it comes to donors, we have an issue with donors, if they're saying fire this professor. Or expel these students for their speech. That's where we draw the line. But if donors are saying, “You know what? This place sucks. I'm not giving my money to it anymore.” Partially, with my own hat on, it's like, damn right. The idea that a mega-corporation, Harvard, that has over $50 billion in their rainy-day fund. Which –

Nico Perrino: You mean a mega hedge fund?

Greg Lukianoff: Mega hedge fund needs your $100 million. It was crazy. And give that money to FIRE. Give that money to University of Austin. Give that money to what Sal Khan is doing with School USA. To actually figure out ways to actually invest in other things in the meantime. Don't let them say, “Oh, we will fix this.” Keep your money until they have fixed it. And shown they have fixed it for a while.

Nico Perrino: Or build new institutions.

Greg Lukianoff: Or build new institutions. We desperately need that. So, I think that the universities have become too reliant on the idea that they're kind of almost owed this ridiculous amount of extra money. I remember when I was at Stanford when we would get alumni pledges. And one of my friends looking at me kind of like, “Walmart doesn't ask me for extra money.” And I think Walmart has less money than Stanford.

So, I think that donors can play a very positive role. I think that they should be pushing. And we are here and happy to help. And I think that some of the steps that need to be taken are painful. I think it's going to be very difficult to fix the free speech problem on campus without fixing the hyper-bureaucratization problem. I say this over and over again. They're very closely related. But I think now, there's enough skepticism about what's going on in higher ed that I think real reform is possible.

And meanwhile, it's interesting for me, because writing Canceling of the American Mind, talking about all these cases. Talking about how dysfunctional the way campuses have taught us to argue to win arguments, without winning arguments. About all these rhetorical fortresses, as we call them in the book, that they set up. That will never get you anywhere near the truth. It left me pretty, frankly, depressed and anxious about the book coming out because it made me feel pretty bleak about the potential future for higher ed.

And even though things are looking pretty bleak right now, at least I'm getting the sense that people are waking up to, “Oh wow, this is as crazy as maybe Haidt, Lukianoff, and FIRE have been saying for a long time. So, as I said on Bill Maher, welcome to the party.

Nico Perrino: Yeah. Well, you got talking about some potential solutions there, Greg. You got talking about the de-bureaucratization. We talked a little bit about building new institutions, which I know is one of Bari Weiss’ big bugaboos at the moment. It reminds me of the Sam Rayburn quote. Sam Rayburn being the old Speaker of the House in Congress. Who said, “Any jackass can kick down a barn. But it takes a good carpenter to build one.” I think we need more good carpenters at the moment.

But I think, and I'm hopeful that this, Greg, this moment will help universities rediscover their missions. And Fareed Zakaria talked a little bit about this on his program over the weekend. And he had a clip that went viral, it’s about five minutes. And he kind of encompasses what in his opinion is the main problem with colleges and universities. And he says that “Universities have supplanted the truth-seeking function of the university with social justice causes and DEI efforts.”

And I know you're co-author on The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt, talks a lot about the telos of a university. What is the core purpose, the telos, of the university? And he talks about how universities can only really have one core purpose. Just kind of like a planet only has one axis it can spin on. And if you try and spin on multiple axes – multiple teloses – things get all jiggered up. Right?

Greg Lukianoff: Higgly-Piggly.

Nico Perrino: Piggly-Piggly. Yeah, I was trying to think of a good silly word to describe that. But we've seen it, some of the conversations surrounding the most recent issue. That every challenge is also an opportunity, right? You said you're going to need years to see whether that one plays out. But what are you thinking about the missions of colleges and universities at the moment?

Greg Lukianoff: I think that a lot of university presidents seem almost uncomfortable with saying that the role of this university is truth-seeking. And they talk about multiple other things. Many laudable things, like in diversity inclusion. But at the same time, and this was a very strange thing to have to explain to – it’s not going to sound like a very nice way to put it to educated people – that I dealt with some activist friends of mine who didn't understand what Haidt was saying. It's like, “No, we want to serve both truth and social justice.”

And the problem is, but you already think you know what social justice is. You already think you know what tree to push against. What the agenda should be. That's unscholarly certainty you're starting with assumptions about what it must look like. Intellectual humility is saying, “Maybe we're wrong about all this stuff.” Alice Dreger, in her great Galileo's Middle Finger, makes the point that truth is a necessary precondition to social justice.

But it's not the function of the university to figure out social justice. It's to figure out what the world actually looks like, which is surely a difficult enough task. And by the way, if you have preconceived notions of what it must look like, you're going to get an increasingly distorted picture, which is I fear, one of the things that's happening right now. It's one of the reasons why people don't take many academic experts as seriously as they once did. Is because they sense that in some cases, they'll place ideology above truth-seeking.

And unfortunately, I've seen indications of this all throughout my career. I've seen a lot of scholars actually making the argument that essentially – oh, yeah, there's this amazing, amazingly bad book written by two AAUP, American Association of University Professors, called It's Not About Free Speech. And during one of the worst threats to free speech and academic freedom, I'm familiar with, since the law has been established, the worst threat. We talk about over 200 Professors being fired, which is twice as many professors that we know of, were fired, that we knew, at the time, of McCarthyism.

We're dealing with a very serious situation. And there are people actually arguing that we have to actually now limit academic freedom to anything that might present White supremacy. And in the course of making that argument, they actually argued that they meant the CRT version of White supremacy, which is basically anything that they disagree with.

So, I think that universities have strayed very far from the idea that truth-seeking is their function. And we need some bold university president saying that, “It’s first and foremost what we're here for, we are here for promoting inquiry. And taking seriously the search for truth by slashing away at falsity.”

Nico Perrino: Yeah, I want to remind folks, we've got about 15 minutes left here. If you have questions, please put them in the chat. And our social media guy will feed them on over to us to answer.

Greg, you talk a lot about epistemic humility. And it reminds me of an experience I had when I was in college, at Indiana University. Where this fundamentalist Evangelical Pastor, Douglas Wilson, came to campus. Folks who are familiar with him might know him from his nationwide tour with the late, in my opinion, great Christopher Hitchens, who had died in 2011. And Douglas Wilson came to Indiana University's campus shortly after his passing. And I'm a big fan of Christopher Hitchens. And this was my opportunity, as a student at Indiana University, to play Christopher Hitchens and to debate Douglas Wilson.

But no sooner had he stood up to start talking, that my fellow students at Indiana University started shouting him down. And I'll never forget a line he had, as he was being shouted down. He said, “I always think I'm right. But I don't think I'm always right. I always think I'm right. But I don't think I'm always right.” And I think that phrase, Greg, perfectly encapsulates this sort of epistemic humility that any good scholars should approach colleges and universities with. It's this idea that we'll have strong convictions loosely held.

And you talk, Greg, about how the admissions process for students should help encourage these values. And screen students for those who are interested in talking across lines of difference and playing devil's advocate in thought experimentation. Rather than some of the current social justice causes that are used to screen out students in admission.

I mean, it struck me that in this Douglas Wilson experience, these people were so certain in their beliefs that they didn't let Douglas speak. And they wouldn't let anyone else in the audience who wanted to hear him listen. They were so certain of their beliefs that they thought nobody else should have the right to engage with what he had to say. And I don't think that's a fundamentally scholarly way to approach the college and university experience.

Greg Lukianoff: Yeah. Well, that's something that we oppose at every level, are the political litmus tests. And although we focused on things like DEI statements as being obviously political litmus tests, when it comes to hiring your professors, a lot of universities in their application process – 1.) They actually now require DEI statements, which can't help but be political litmus tests.

We actually explain this in great detail in Canceling of the American Mind. But also, there's going to be an excerpt running in Reason magazine pretty soon called The Conformity Gauntlet. Kind of explaining the research that confirms the obvious truth. The DEI statements are political litmus tests.

But they're not the only political litmus test. And that universities seem to be asking their students to show like, “Are you the right kind of activist?” Instead of, “Are you the right kind of scholar?” I certainly remember when I was applying to Stanford, because I have great activist cred.

I'm working with inner-city high school kids on environmental mentoring programming. I've been set up an aid to refugee program when I was young. But at the same time, that's all swell, but in many ways, I think it's more important that I worked at Burlington Coat Factory. And was a cook on Block Island. And that I had 20 different jobs since I was 11. Because that taught me to talk across lines of difference. To actually know people from different countries and strata and regions.

And what I'm getting at is, right now, that essentially there is a political litmus test for even students to get in. But since it focuses on activism, it's going to give you, disproportionately, people who come in pretty certain about they understand how the world works. And how it needs to be fixed before they've actually even started their education.

Meanwhile, instead, with what you've prioritized, was someone showing that they're filled with curiosity. And that they don't know everything. And that they want to learn, and they want to listen. That would be really powerful.

Now, of course, the question is how are they going to achieve that? How can we trust these administrators to achieve that? And part of the argument is rather than even doing this kind of stuff at all, that – as Evan Mandery points out in his excellent book, Poison Ivy – maybe it actually should be something where all valedictorians from public schools in a particular area get the opportunity to be admitted to various schools. That can actually potentially be a better system. I feel like you need some objective criteria. And if it was based less on figuring out whether or not I liked the ideology of someone and more on objective standards, I think some of this problem might actually start to address itself.

But if you're going to be selecting for characteristics, don't select for epistemic certainty and arrogance. And select for people who are actually like, “I want to know the world. I want to spend the rest of my life swimming in the ocean of knowledge and knowing that I'll never get anywhere close to the shore.”

Nico Perrino: Now, viewpoint of diversity for faculty, Greg. I read a statistic not too long ago that said that I think, that for every eight and a half – or no, for every one conservative professor, there were two liberal professors. This was in the 1980s. But now it stands at about eight and a half to one. Eight and a half liberal professors to one conservative professor. And it's even higher than that, much higher than that in some departments in some liberal arts colleges.

What does the lack of viewpoint diversity on college campuses – what's the impact on freedom of expression and the search for truth? And, if you would, kind of speak to the impacts on polarization, as well. And Cass Sunstein’s work on the law of group polarization.

Greg Lukianoff: Yeah. I got my best distillation of explaining the relationship between group polarization and freedom of speech today, that I retweeted. And I was talking about the hate speech laws, that I'm told are not quite been passed in Ireland. But giving the example of what they actually did in France. Because France passed hate speech laws. Laws against anti-Semitic speech a long time ago. And by every measure, anti-Semitism has gotten worse in France since they passed them.

And I don't think that's not only just in spite of the hate speech codes, I think it's partially because of it. Because one thing I say is if you're fighting people who believe there's a conspiracy to shut them up, do absolutely nothing. That looks like conspiracy to shut them up. That plays into their paranoia.

But also, basically, what France was saying since they don't seem to get that censorship doesn't change anyone's mind, is only talk to people who agree with you. So, your plan is what? Have all the anti-Semites only talk to other anti-Semites? And then you're shocked that anti-Semitism gets worse. Obviously, you should have seen that coming.

So, group polarization is a very normal, natural pernicious common sense, psychological phenomena. When it comes to viewpoint diversity on campus, that's something that I very much agree with Jonathan Haidt about. That it's hard to be too optimistic about the future of higher ed if it just continues to get less and less politically diverse. And more and more politically pushed in one direction.

Because in order to fight that intellectual certainty – that groupthink – you need some people going, “Actually, I think what you're saying is BS. Actually, I reject your fundamental premises. And let's hash it out.”

And so, it is a question for us, can universities actually fix themselves without committing to having greater viewpoint diversity? And it's very hard to see a way that they can do that. It's not an official FIRE position, but we do paint over this quite a bit.

So, that's one of the reasons why I kind of like the idea of having co-taught classes when people disagree. Because that would create a situation which part of the requirement is to actually find professors who disagree with other professors to work in various schools.

Nico Perrino: Well, as I said earlier in this conversation, Greg, every crisis is also an opportunity. And so, what do you see as the most likely path forward? Are you optimistic? Are you pessimistic? Just what is your psychological state right now?

Greg Lukianoff: My psychological state is I think 2024 is going to be an incredibly polarizing year, no matter what. Politically with an election coming up. And I think that we're going to see an increase in cancel culture next year. I very much hope to be wrong.

I think that there is a level of skepticism about what's going on in higher ed to help potentially positive changes there. And I really do think that it could, because even if it was just on cost alone and bureaucratization. That the fact that universities have been putting people into tremendous debt, while at the same time primarily focusing on growing their bureaucracies, is something that every American should be pretty annoyed about.

So, I think that reform, this was unsustainable, it could not keep going this way. And we have to seriously address, at some point. So, I have greater hope for meaningful reform now. Could that meaningful reform, though go completely the wrong direction? I sure as hell hope not. But once again, I’ll offer FIRE’s help and advice to make sure that it doesn't go in that direction.

Nico Perrino: You're ready for a nice, relaxing holiday season here, Greg?

Greg Lukianoff: Oh, yeah. No, no. I just gotta sip this cup of coffee. Nothing’s going to happen.

Nico Perrino: Some old wine? That might be better at getting through this current moment. But I think we're gonna wrap it up here, folks.

I wanted to mention if you like what FIRE is doing and you want to fight for the cause of free speech, we're building a free speech army. We launched a membership program earlier this year, where you can become a FIRE member. A $25.00 donation, you'll get a FIRE membership card, invitations to exclusive events, and you can do that by going to There should be a button at the bottom that says “Become a member now” or if you just go up to the “Donate” button at the top it should siphon you in the right direction.

But we're again trying to build a free speech army with a membership program. We already have over 10,000 FIRE members. And we'd love to have more principled free speech advocates in our corner. Advocating for these timeless principles of free speech, academic freedom, freedom of the press, and frankly, the just basic right to be who you are and to speak your mind.

I should also note that this conversation, we will run as a podcast on my podcast called So to Speak, the Free Speech podcast. If you enjoy conversations like this, we host conversations like this on a multitude of topics every other week. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And also do not forget, buy Greg's new book, Canceling of the American Mind. He's out there doing a ton of media about it. It couldn't be more relevant to this current moment. Greg, do you have any last thoughts before we sign off?

Greg Lukianoff: That it makes a great stocking stuffer for people who assured you cancel culture is a hoax.

Nico Perrino: Alright, folks, thanks for tuning in. We appreciate all of your listening and support. And we'll talk again soon.

Greg Lukianoff: Absolutely. Great chatting with you.