College: Where Free Speech Goes to Die

fsThe value of the university once lay in its providing a nurturing space for what English poet and essayist Matthew Arnold called “the free play of the mind upon all subjects,” which would foster the “instinct prompting [the mind] to try to know the best that is known and thought in the world, irrespective of practice, politics, and everything of the kind.”

Critical to these enterprises is the notion of academic freedom––the ability to study, teach, and talk about subjects, no matter how controversial, without fear of retribution or censorship. For only by discussing openly a wide range of subjects can the liberally educated mind “make the best prevail,” as Arnold put it, and turn “a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically.”

Those days are long gone in American universities today, as Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty, a dismal catalogue of campus censorship and enforced conformity, documents. On American campuses, “differences of opinion are not viewed as opportunities to learn or to think through ideas,” Lukianoff writes. “Dissent is regarded as a nuisance at best, and sometimes as an outright threat.” His lively book is at once a relentless exposure of the intellectual intolerance institutionalized in higher education, and a passionate defense of the value of free thought and expression.

Lukianoff is an attorney, self-proclaimed “liberal-leaning atheist,” and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which for more than a decade has exposed unconstitutional campus speech codes and defended those who have fallen afoul of them. Despite those efforts, higher education’s assault on the First Amendment right to speech continues to subvert the goal of liberal education, drying up Arnold’s “stream of fresh and free thought” and reinforcing, rather than challenging, the “stock notions and habits” of progressive orthodoxy.

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As a result, Lukianoff writes, “The only institution that could be helping elevate the national discussion may actually be making it worse” as students graduate never having left the “echo chambers” of their own minds. Instead, they have been subjected to a curriculum and campus life focused on “rewarding groupthink, punishing devil’s advocates, and shutting down discussions on some of the hottest and most important topics of the day.”

Though his book is about colleges and universities, Lukianoff takes on high schools as well. Most students will leave high school, he argues, never having learned the philosophical arguments for free speech that undergird the First Amendment, or studied how political freedom is founded on the right to speak freely. The depressing absence of protests from college students against administration censorship can be traced to this “high school environment that often portrays free speech as a problem, that does not teach the philosophy or law or utility of free speech, and that presents punishment of students for bad opinions as morally righteous.” No surprise, then, that such students are “cautious about what they say” and “may even favor pressure towards conformity or silence.”

The Campus Sensitivity Police

So when these students get to campus, they have no inclination to question the dishonest pronouncements made by their colleges that , as Yale put its, “We value freedom of expression precisely because it provides a forum for the new, the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox.”

Left unexplained is how these alleged principles fit in with campus speech codes that monitor and punish precisely all of those things. Yale, for example, sanctioned a student for putting up an ironic banner reading “Kill ‘em All” in his dorm room window after 9/11 because it “might create a hostile environment for some ethnic minorities.” In 2009, another student was punished for wearing a T-shirt quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s crack that “all Harvard men are sissies” in the run-up to Yale’s football game with traditional rival Harvard. Lukianoff quips, “Apparently, quoting Fitzgerald is a bridge too far” for the campus thought-police, who are remarkably humorless when it comes to ironic literary allusions.

As these and numerous other examples show, campus prohibitions on speech are overbroad and subjective. They are more concerned with “respect for personal feelings,” as one speech code says, than with free thought. They want to protect students from “emotional, mental or verbal harm,” as another one states, rather than challenging students’ beliefs.

Their proscriptions, designed to protect selected groups from hurt feelings, and shield the university from possible harassment lawsuits, necessarily contradict that commitment to free speech and robust debate touted in …

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