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Entertainment & the Arts | November 15, 2012

Unlearning Liberty


New book from Greg Lukianoff details the battle on college campuses between free speech and the 'right' not to be offended

In Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate (Encounter, 2012) Greg Lukianoff details attempts to purge college campuses of anything that might offend, a policy that stifles the First Amendment and the free flow of ideas. In their effort to coddle students' feelings, college administrators reinforce an increasingly polarized society that deprives its citizens of the life-enriching experience that comes with hearty, civil debate.

Lukianoff, president of Foundation for Individual Freedom in Education (FIRE), outlines four underlying factors that promote ambivalence toward protected speech on campus: ignorance, ideology, bureaucracy, and liability. The ignorance of students entering college allows for easy ideological training. A burgeoning administrative class "creates and enforces an environment of censorship." And fear of liability guarantees institutions will over regulate student and faculty discourse to show they take harassment and discrimination charges more seriously than freedom of speech.

"Despite our country's veneration of the term 'free speech,' the importance of free expression is neither obvious nor intuitive," Lukianoff writes. "It has been the exception in human history, not the rule."

A former ACLU attorney, Lukianoff recognizes the irony of his work, much of which involves defending Christians' free speech rights. A self-proclaimed atheist, Lukianoff makes clear his support for liberal causes and his disagreement with religious dissent on such issues. But, he writes, to shut down all disagreeable conversations, even the speech of Christians, not only violates constitutional rights but does a disservice to the community at large. Institutionalized attempts to silence all potentially hurtful language, even that of the Christian faith, serves only to deepen suspicions and embolden partisan resolve, Lukianoff warns.

To illustrate the snares of speech codes and indoctrination, Lukianoff follows the travails of a fictitious character from his sophomore year in high school to the conclusion of his first semester at "Big State University." The student's tale introduces real-life examples of disturbingly blatant free speech violations. Bad policy is rooted in good intentions, and university administrators' efforts to create a tolerant and open society by stifling all potentially hurtful speech is a case in point. (Lukianoff lays much of the blame for free speech violations at the feet of college administrators.)

Private colleges are not bound by First Amendment free speech dictates, and they are allowed to establish their own codes of conduct. But speech codes on public and private campuses are intentionally vague and, in some cases, alarmingly intrusive. Lukianoff details the secretive actions of an Orwellian-style dormitory orientation program at the University of Delaware. The school required students to answer questions about their sexuality and admit their inherit racism and culpability in the systemic oppression entrenched in our society. Facilitators told students how they should think and speak about sexuality, race-related issues and environmental topics. Students who refused to agree with the school's positions on these issues were subjected to "public shaming." Every year, all 7,000 students who lived in the dorms had to participate in the program.

Faculty, often the conduit for speech code enforcement, are not immune to allegations of harassment and discrimination. Some have lost their jobs or been censured. But the majority gives tacit approval to the codes, and therein lays the perpetuation of the problem. Lukianoff writes the failure to educate students in elementary and high schools about their fundamental free speech rights breeds college students oblivious of the violations they unwittingly approve. After graduation, they enter the workplace, including our schools, championing the cause of the people's "right not to be offended."