How Free Speech Died on Campus
A young activist describes how universities became the most authoritarian institutions in America.
By Sohrab Ahmari, November 16, 2012, Wall Street Journal Online
At Yale University, you can be prevented from putting an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote on your T-shirt. At Tufts, you can be censured for quoting certain passages from the Quran. Welcome to the most authoritarian institution in America: the modern university—”a bizarre, parallel dimension,” as Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, calls it.
Mr. Lukianoff, a 38-year-old Stanford Law grad, has spent the past decade fighting free-speech battles on college campuses. The latest was last week at Fordham University, where President Joseph McShane scolded College Republicans for the sin of inviting Ann Coulter to speak.
“To say that I am disappointed with the judgment and maturity of the College Republicans . . . would be a tremendous understatement,” Mr. McShane said in a Nov. 9 statement condemning the club’s invitation to the caustic conservative pundit. He vowed to “hold out great contempt for anyone who would intentionally inflict pain on another human being because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or creed.”
To be clear, Mr. McShane didn’t block Ms. Coulter’s speech, but he said that her presence would serve as a “test” for Fordham. A day later, the students disinvited Ms. Coulter. Mr. McShane then praised them for having taken “responsibility for their decisions” and expressing “their regrets sincerely and eloquently.”
Mr. Lukianoff says that the Fordham-Coulter affair took campus censorship to a new level: “This was the longest, strongest condemnation of a speaker that I’ve ever seen in which a university president also tried to claim that he was defending freedom of speech.”
I caught up with Mr. Lukianoff at New York University in downtown Manhattan, where he was once targeted by the same speech restrictions that he has built a career exposing. Six years ago, a student group at the university invited him to participate in a panel discussion about the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that had sparked violent rioting by Muslims across the world.
When Muslim students protested the event, NYU threatened to close the panel to the public if the offending cartoons were displayed. The discussion went on—without the cartoons. Instead, the student hosts displayed a blank easel, registering their own protest.
“The people who believe that colleges and universities are places where we want less freedom of speech have won,” Mr. Lukianoff says. “If anything, there should be even greater freedom of speech on college campuses. But now things have been turned around to give campus communities the expectation that if someone’s feelings are hurt by something that is said, the university will protect that person. As soon as you allow something as vague as Big Brother protecting your feelings, anything and everything can be punished.”
You might say Greg Lukianoff was born to fight college censorship. With his unruly red hair and a voice given to booming, he certainly looks and sounds the part. His ethnically Irish, British-born mother moved to America during the 1960s British-nanny fad, while his Russian father came from Yugoslavia to study at the University of Wisconsin. Russian history, Mr. Lukianoff says, “taught me about the worst things that can happen with good intentions.”
Growing up in an immigrant neighborhood in Danbury, Conn., sharpened his views. When “you had so many people from so many different backgrounds, free speech made intuitive sense,” Mr. Lukianoff recalls. “In every genuinely diverse community I’ve ever lived in, freedom of speech had to be the rule. . . . I find it deeply ironic that on college campuses diversity is used as an argument against unbridled freedom of speech.”
After graduating from Stanford, where he specialized in First Amendment law, he joined the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization co-founded in 1999 by civil-rights lawyer Harvey Silverglate and Alan Charles Kors, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, to counter the growing but often hidden threats to free speech in academia. FIRE’s tactics include waging publicity campaigns intended to embarrass college administrators into dropping speech-related disciplinary charges against individual students, or reversing speech-restricting policies. When that fails, FIRE often takes its cases to court, where it tends to prevail.
In his new book, “Unlearning Liberty,” Mr. Lukianoff notes that baby-boom Americans who remember the student protests of the 1960s tend to assume that U.S. colleges are still some of the freest places on earth. But that idealized university no longer exists. It was wiped out in the 1990s by administrators, diversity hustlers and liability-management professionals, who were often abetted by professors committed to political agendas.
“What’s disappointing and rightfully scorned,” Mr. Lukianoff says, “is that in some cases the very professors who were benefiting from the free-speech movement turned around to advocate speech codes and speech zones in the 1980s and ’90s.”
Today, university bureaucrats suppress debate with anti-harassment policies that function as de facto speech codes. FIRE maintains a database of such policies on its website, and Mr. Lukianoff’s book offers an eye-opening sampling. What they share is a view of “harassment” so broad and so removed from its legal definition that, Mr. Lukianoff says, “literally every student on campus is already guilty.”
At Western Michigan University, it is considered harassment to hold a “condescending sex-based attitude.” That just about sums up the line “I think of all Harvard men as sissies” (from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel “This Side of Paradise”), a quote that was banned at Yale when students put it on a T-shirt. Tufts University in Boston proscribes the holding of “sexist attitudes,” and a student newspaper there was found guilty of harassment in 2007 for printing violent passages from the Quran and facts about the status of women in Saudi Arabia during the school’s “Islamic Awareness Week.”
At California State University in Chico, it was prohibited until recently to engage in “continual use of generic masculine terms such as to refer to people of both sexes or references to both men and women as necessarily heterosexual.” Luckily, there is no need to try to figure out what the school was talking about—the prohibition was removed earlier this year after FIRE named it as one of its two “Speech Codes of the Year” in 2011.
At Northeastern University, where I went to law school, it is a violation of the Internet-usage policy to transmit any message “which in the sole judgment” of administrators is “annoying.”
Conservatives and libertarians are especially vulnerable to such charges of harassment. Even though Mr. Lukianoff’s efforts might aid those censorship victims, he hardly counts himself as one of them: He says that he is a lifelong Democrat and a “passionate believer” in gay marriage and abortion rights. And free speech. “If you’re going to get in trouble for an opinion on campus, it’s more likely for a socially conservative opinion.”
Consider the two students at Colorado College who were punished in 2008 for satirizing a gender-studies newsletter. The newsletter had included boisterous references to “male castration,” “feminist porn” and other unprintable matters. The satire, published by the “Coalition of Some Dudes,” tamely discussed “chainsaw etiquette” (“your chainsaw is not an indoor toy”) and offered quotations from Teddy Roosevelt and menshealth.com. The college found the student satirists guilty of “the juxtaposition of weaponry and sexuality.”
“Even when we win our cases,” says Mr. Lukianoff, “the universities almost never apologize to the students they hurt or the faculty they drag through the mud.” Brandeis University has yet to withdraw a 2007 finding of racial harassment against Prof. Donald Hindley for explaining the origins of “wetback” in a Latin-American Studies course. Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis apologized to a janitor found guilty of harassment—for reading a book celebrating the defeat of the Ku Klux Klan in the presence of two black colleagues—but only after protests by FIRE and an op-ed in these pages by Dorothy Rabinowitz.
What motivates college administrators to act so viciously? “It’s both self-interest and ideological commitment,” Mr. Lukianoff says. On the ideological front, “it’s almost like you flip a switch, and these administrators, who talk so much about treating every student with dignity and compassion, suddenly come to see one student as a caricature of societal evil.”
Administrative self-interest is also at work. “There’s been this huge expansion in the bureaucratic class at universities,” Mr. Lukianoff explains. “They passed the number of people involved in instruction sometime around 2006. So you get this ever-renewing crop of administrators, and their jobs aren’t instruction but to police student behavior. In the worst cases, they see it as their duty to intervene on students’ deepest beliefs.”
Consider the University of Delaware, which in fall 2007 instituted an ideological orientation for freshmen. The “treatment,” as the administrators called it, included personal interviews that probed students’ private lives with such questions as: “When did you discover your sexual identity?” Students were taught in group sessions that the term racist “applies to all white people” while “people of color cannot be racists.” Once FIRE spotlighted it, the university dismantled the program.
Yet in March 2012, Kathleen Kerr, the architect of the Delaware program, was elected vice president of the American College Personnel Association, the professional group of university administrators.
A 2010 survey by the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that of 24,000 college students, only 35.6% strongly agreed that “it is safe to hold unpopular views on campus.” When the question was asked of 9,000 campus professionals—who are more familiar with the enforcement end of the censorship rules—only 18.8% strongly agreed.
Mr. Lukianoff thinks all of this should alarm students, parents and alumni enough to demand change: “If just a handful more students came in knowing what administrators are doing at orientation programs, with harassment codes, or free-speech zones—if students knew this was wrong—we could really change things.”
The trouble is that students are usually intimidated into submission. “The startling majority of students don’t bother. They’re too concerned about their careers, too concerned about their grades, to bother fighting back,” he says. Parents and alumni dismiss free-speech restrictions as something that only happens to conservatives, or that will never affect their own children.
“I make the point that this is happening, and even if it’s happening to people you don’t like, it’s a fundamental violation of what the university means,” says Mr. Lukianoff. “Free speech is about protecting minority rights. Free speech is about admitting you don’t know everything. Free speech is about protecting oddballs. It means protecting dissenters.”
It even means letting Ann Coulter speak.
Mr. Ahmari is an assistant books editor at the Journal.
A version of this article appeared November 17, 2012, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: How Free Speech Died on Campus.