Despite their feigned interest in tolerance, college campuses are among the most punitive and stifling environments in the country. Students are routinely punished for “offenses” ranging from penning mild satire to holding the wrong opinions on important social and political issues. One book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, by Greg Lukianoff, documents these abuses better than any other that has been written since I joined the campus culture wars over a decade ago. Greg is able to document these things well and for a simple reason: he has been the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for the last seven years.
The stories Greg tells in his new book are so disturbing it will be difficult for some to believe that they are all real and all come from American universities. Unlearning Liberty at times sounds like an account from some far away land that never valued the kinds of freedoms our constitution guarantees. For example,
* A student is punished for racial insensitivity for publicly reading a book that condemns the KKK.
* Students are required to lobby before legislatures for political bills they disagree with in order to graduate from a public university.
* A student Senate passes a Sedition Act to punish other students for criticizing them at, of all places, a public university governed by the First Amendment and funded by their tuition dollars.
However strange these stories seem, they deserve our undivided attention. The reason is simple: when these students graduate, their anti-liberty mindset is unleashed on the larger society.
Indeed, after a generation of unlearning liberty, these things will begin to seem normal if not addressed soon. FIRE co-founder Alan Charles Kors said it best when he stated that “A nation that does not educate in liberty will not long preserve it and will not even know when it is lost.”
For over a decade, I have been trying to explain that the campus free speech war transcends politics and religion. It is a threat to everyone. That is why I am glad that a book echoing my arguments – but in far greater depth and with much greater eloquence – was written by someone who disagrees with me on a broad range of issues. Greg Lukianoff is an atheist, a Democrat, a supporter of same-sex marriage, and a supporter of abortion rights. We have worked together for years as allies in the free speech wars because we both recognize that liberty is a sacred process, not a pre-ordained result.
We also understand that true commitment to liberty is measured by the conduct of our institutions of higher learning, and not by their statements about their conduct. For example, Harvard University claims that “Curtailment of free speech undercuts the intellectual freedom that defines (Harvard’s) purpose.” In reality, it fires even presidents who refuse to bow down to the gods of political correctness and gender sensitivity.
Harvard and other private universities claim to be free from the technical requirement that they conform to the dictates of the First Amendment. That much is true. But they are not free from the moral requirement that they must always be honest about the true state of the marketplace of ideas in their classrooms and across their campuses.
Truth be known, Harvard has a long record of suppressing free speech among students, faculty, and, more recently, non conforming administrators. Given that reality, they should refrain from telling prospective students that, “The free exchange of ideas is vital for our primary function of discovering and disseminating ideas.”
To the extent that administrators make these patently false claims, they fraudulently induce students into taking on debt, often in the realm of six digits. All this, in order to join a marketplace of ideas that barely exists in an age of administratively mandated and supervised political correctness.
The best and most accurate measure of the depth of our constitutional crisis in higher education can be seen in the campus speech codes of our public university campuses. These codes are a measure of not just the censoriousness of our public administrators but also their audacity. The fact that they knowingly enforce them – even with no prospect of winning in court shows us two things:
1. They know that even when they lose in individual cases, the presence of the often multiply-layered speech codes will help maintain orthodoxy by chilling speech that is not politically correct.
2. Due to qualified immunity, they will never have to pay personal damages and the general public – the same people they seek to censor – will have to foot the bill for the litigation.
The problem is not just at Harvard and Yale. It is at other universities – even ones located in conservative areas of the nation. For example, Texas A&M has a speech code that prohibits violating the “right” to “respect for personal feelings” and protects “freedom from indignity of any type.”
Of course, many of the smaller liberal arts colleges are even worse. Davidson College bans “inquiries about dating.” So you can’t ask someone on a date at Davidson without violating the speech code. Even if you could, you would not be able to ask your date to go see Guys and Dolls. Use of the word “doll” is considered sexual harassment.
The University of Iowa does the best job of combining the speech code and the sexual harassment policy into a powerful weapon people can use to destroy just about anyone they don’t like: sexual harassment is when “somebody says or does something sexually related that you don’t want them to say or do, regardless of who it is.” Did you get that folks? If you are a student at Iowa and the girl you like has sex with someone else and you get jealous then guess what? You’ve been sexually harassed!
Because the speech code issue is so important and because this book is so important, I will review it in several installments. In the meantime, go to this link and order a copy now. Learn about the American values students are unlearning on campuses all across America today.
Author’s Note: On Wednesday, October 24th, I will be debating liberal Rick Perlstein and libertarian Jim Harper at NC State University in Raleigh. The event, which is free and open to the public, will begin at 6 pm in Dabney Hall.