UnLearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate
Report by Betty Sakai
It is indeed an honor that someone with such comprehensive knowledge about our First Amendment would take the time from his busy schedule to speak at the Forum. To a welcoming audience, Greg Lukianoff presented an overview of his 2014 book, “Unlearning Liberty, Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate.” Citing case after case where universities and colleges have severely restricted free speech on campus, Lukianoff paused to relieve the seriousness of the discussion with a bit of personal humor. Laughing spontaneously with a type of infectious laughter, he provided insights into his own life growing up in the cultural paradox of an always polite British mother and a Russian father who believed that politeness is a form of deception.
As President of FIRE -- the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education – Greg Lukianoff is a graduate of the American University and the Stanford Law School where he focused on Constitutional law. As a member of the State Bar of California and the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States, he is well-versed on the depth and scope of the First Amendment, having taken every course offered on this subject by Stanford University. As a result of this focus, he has become a sought-after First Amendment defense attorney. He has published articles in the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, New York Post, Stanford Technology Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, Reason, Congressional Quarterly, the Charleston Law Review, as well as numerous other publications. He is a co-author of FIRE’s “Guide to Free Speech on Campus”, and authored the chapter in the anthology entitled “New Threats to Freedom”. A frequent guest on local and national syndicated radio programs, Greg has represented FIRE on national television shows including CBS Evening News, the O’Reilly Factor, MSNBC’s Dr. Nancy, The Abrams Report, Hannity, Stossel, Scarborough Country, Buchanan and Press, and has testified before the U.S. Senate about free speech issues on America’s campuses. In 2008 he became the first-ever recipient of the Playboy Foundation Freedom of Expression Award. In 2010 he received the Ford Hall Forum’s Louis P. and Evelyn Smith First Amendment Award on behalf of FIRE.
Pointing out the scope of the problem, Lukianoff said the American Association of Colleges and Universities surveyed twenty-five thousand (25,000) students across the country, asking, “Is it safe to hold unpopular points of view on your campus?” Forty percent (40%) of freshmen perceived they were safe. Sophomores, juniors, and seniors were more pessimistic. And only 16.7% of professors felt they were safe, knowing they too can be punished for questioning authority and for saying the wrong thing in their classrooms.
In addition, the First Amendment Center has been asking the following question for decades: “Does the First Amendment go too far?” They came up this time with some disturbing results. A large percent of Americans responded that the First Amendment goes too far. Those over sixty (60) years of age had no complaints. Very few between the ages of thirty (30) and sixty (60) said the First Amendment goes too far. But forty-seven percent (47%) between the ages of eighteen (18) and thirty (30) responded that they believed the First Amendment goes too far.
Lukianoff exampled one case in California on September 17th, on Constitution Day. A college student attempted to hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution. He was told he could not do this and was informed by various employees he would need to sign up to express his free speech in the restricted (tiny) campus free speech zone when it was next available sometime in October. Where once students would riot if confronted by such controls over free speech, thoughts, and opinions, students today are suffering under the weight of high tuition and the fear of expulsion. They “go along to get along”, and quietly accept restrictions on their right to speak and think freely, to assemble peacefully, in exchange for a degree and a diploma.
In an era of hate crime legislation where big brother government has imposed laws opposing the free expression of opinion, open discourse and thoughtful debate has been stifled for fear of prosecution. On college campuses, such discussions were once considered an integral part of the experience of higher education. Today free discussion has been muted.
Lukianoff said that harassment defined on college campuses is often interpreted as the “right to not be offended”. This is not the legal definition of harassment. Supporters of racial and sexual harassment laws, he said, should strive to bring campus definitions back in line with the legal definition of harassment, and with free speech. Campus codes are not “just on the books”. Harassment cases on campus are largely the stories of universities ignoring the right of free speech and the true legal definition of harassment as they pass codes that when challenged are laughed out of court. Universities that pass such codes undermine the very reason for academic freedom, to learn about democracy, pluralism, and expression.
The discussion of the right of free speech is not a comfortable one for many who are not particularly skilled verbally, who have suffered discrimination and verbal assaults sometime during their life. The passage of harassment (hate-crime) legislation was applauded by many who thought these laws would end their fears of being verbally assaulted and discriminated against. Many wanted a powerful ally like big brother government to stand up for them, to prosecute and control their assailants. They wanted laws to defend them against those who use words as swords against race, gender, nationality, religion, position, success, or other perceived differences. Many felt that by eliminating the right of their offenders to call them names or belittle them, they would at last feel safe, protected, equal, and free.
But the means for learning how “to get along” does not happen when the freedom to openly express one’s thoughts and opinions is eliminated. The paradox of freedom is that both love and hate, intelligence and ignorance, more and less, strength and weakness exist as part of the human condition. Students must learn how to function within the human paradox. Democracy cannot be learned when laws are passed that shut down free speech. Lukianoff argued that government and college administrators should not be involved in limiting speech by establishing harassment codes and setting up free speech zones and requiring students to wait to express their Constitutional right to self-expression. Other avenues of resolution are possible such as cultural education and the sponsoring of rational campus debates which would help preserve free speech while developing citizenship in a Democracy. Lukianoff said that although open debate sounds reasonable, the fact is that the current generation of students has shied away from meaningful debate. This has been a much-discussed phenomenon in academia for at least a decade.
There is a culture of silence on campuses where students are hesitant to be disrespectful by speaking their minds. Lukianoff noted that too few Americans know that campus speech codes are real and are more numerous than their supposed heyday in the early 1990s. Beyond academia, he exampled federally funded NPR’s firing of civil rights historian and journalist Juan Williams. CEO Vivian Schiller was quoted as saying that Williams should have kept his feeling about Muslims between himself and “his psychiatrist or his publicist.” This is precisely the message that speech codes and viewpoint-based punishments send. The result is cowed students, silent classrooms, and whispers in cliques rather than serious, meaty, honest talk.
Lukianoff exampled the University of Delaware’s “Treatment” that has been applauded by the American college Personnel Association (ACPA). Seven thousand (7,000) dormitory residents were subjected to a speech code that classified “any instance that is perceived by those involved as racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, or otherwise oppressive” as an emergency of equal urgency to fire, suicide attempts, and alcohol overdose. It imposed a curriculum on the entire student body living in the dorms. The intent was to leave a mental footprint on their consciousness -- the same type missing in the villain from George Orwell’s 1984. Included in the Treatment were a series of mandatory floor meetings where students would engage in exercises, standing on one wall if they supported one or the other side of social issues. The assumption was that the source of racism is a corrupt American culture that can be beaten out of students through high-pressure guilt and shame tactics. Administrators pried into students’ sexual identities. Of greatest shock to Lukianoff was the fact that some students saw nothing wrong with a mandatory residence hall program having specific political and ideological goals. Creating a 24-hour-a-day environment with the goal of getting students to subscribe to specific ideological and political conclusions – many of which are hotly debated – is rightfully scorned as “indoctrination” which trains students to follow uncritical, visceral reactions on crucial issues over reasoned debate.
A very long question and answer session followed. Lukianoff answered questions directly and rapidly. He said attorneys who specialize in the First Amendment are often perceived as being terribly arrogant. The truth is that human nature wants to censor others. We are all natural born censors. It takes a lot of education to actively seek out those who have a different point of view, to listen to their experience and opinions. Censorship discourages debate and encourages group-think.
Questioned whether the FIRE website lists universities that have offensive free speech codes, Lukianoff answered yes! By value of donors, FIRE is reaching out to high school students by sponsoring a scholarship contest. However, FIRE has yet to extend their First Amendment defense services to the high school level. The American flag case in Morgan Hill, CA, needs to be addressed but FIRE cannot do it. Other attorneys would need get involved. Lukianoff then detailed a number of organizations that FIRE works with who are dealing with a number of First Amendment issues concerning free speech and issues of religious freedom.
He emphasized that FIRE wants to talk with those who do not agree with them, that FIRE is very careful to not preach to the choir. He summarized that because there are a number of elements in play, problems with the First Amendment may get worse. He added that free speech will continue to be a major focus for years to come.
Lukianoff discussed the possibility of developing a documentary. He also talked positively about the role of student newspapers and noted his desire to work with them. After many questions had been answered, Forum President Jerry Mungai thanked Greg Lukianoff for an informative presentation. The audience applauded heartily and a book signing followed.
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