FIRE Singes the Censors


How time flies. In 1987, a new breed of speech and harassment codes and student indoctrination were unleashed on college campuses across the land. Thus, what Allan Kors
and Harvey Silverglate famously labeled the “shadow university”–the university
dedicated to censorship and politically correct paternalism–is
now at least 25 years old.

The public recognized the consequences
of the new censorship early on. Noteworthy authors began writing articles and books
about the mounting suppression of free speech, academic freedom, and due
process on campus, culminating in the in-depth chronicling of the dark state of
higher education in The Shadow University
in 1998. 
By the end of the 1990s, however, many observers predicted that the repression would eventually run out of steam as the
passions driving political correctness waned with age. And in many respects,
political correctness often did appear to mellow out. More skeptical
observers claimed that it was not disappearing, but metastasizing. Who
was right?

Greg Lukianoff adresses this question in his outstanding new book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate (Encounter Books).  Lukianoff is the president of the Philadelphia based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, popularly known by its telling acronym, FIRE. Unlearning Liberty is based on cases with which FIRE has dealt over the years.

FIRE was founded by Kors and Silverglate in 1999 and quickly supplanted the American Civil Liberties Union
and the American Association of University Professors as the “go-to”
organization for defending the victims of the liberty wars on
campus. FIRE’s success is also a function of the ceaseless stream of cases it has had
to confront. It is a virtuoso at its game, but that game happens to be a
version of Whack-a-Mole.

If nothing else, Unlearning Liberty supports
those who claim that political correctness has
undergone metastasis rather than entropy. Critics will claim that the book is
too anecdotal to provide conclusive evidence of
the problem’s scope. This critique has some merit but comes with the
territory of such books. More systematic inquiry is needed, certainly, but it is one thing to question to extent of the problem and
another to say there is nothing rotten in the state of Denmark. Furthermore, as
Lukianoff observes early in the book, “Even a single conspicuous case of
punishing speech can have dramatic consequences. This is what we lawyers call
“‘the chilling effect.'” Anyone who has been embroiled in the politics of
liberty on campus recognizes the wisdom of this point.

A true and self-proclaimed liberal through and through,
Lukianoff plays no political favorites and cares about everyone whose ox is
gored. But Unlearning Liberty is not
just another rehash of the campus free speech wars. It is eloquently written
from a voice of genuine experience, and it maintains a healthy sense of humor
that is often needed when dealing with dismal the subject matter. Four other virtues of the book stand out on a
longer list.

First, Unlearning
provides an illuminating update of FIRE’s cases. (In addition to the book,
see FIRE’s webpage:
Reading these cases is like
watching a Mel Brooks version of Night of
the Living Dead
. You laugh at their absurdity; you cry for the victims; you
tremble at the implications for our constitutional democracy. Pick your poison
from the parade of horribles. For example,  the University of Delaware’s
Resident Life program required students to go through a veritable four year “treatment”
regimen that entailed extensive indoctrination in “correct” attitudes
toward race, gender, sexual orientation, and sensitivity. For instance, the
program obligated students to discuss such private matters as how
they had discovered their sexuality. When a student demurred, she was “written up.” 
FIRE succeeded in shutting down the Delaware program with the able assistance of two professors there.

Then there’s the case of the student at Indiana
University-Purdue University in Indianapolis who was charged with racial
harassment in 2007 because a book he read (Notre Dame v. the Klan) had a picture of a Ku Klux Klan rally on
the cover. It made no difference that the book
actually celebrated Notre Dame’s success in keeping the Klan off campus. It was enough that the
book’s cover made some complainants uncomfortable. FIRE managed to get IUPUI to drop the charges
against the “offending” student, but only after he had undergone the agonies
associated with being the target of an illegitimate campus investigation.

A second virtue is Unlearning Liberty‘s perspective. The author has toiled at the organizational epicenter of the battle over freedom on campus.
Constituting the first history of FIRE, the book is replete with illustrations of FIRE’s most important cases. FIRE always seeks
cooperation and consent whenever feasible but is poised to up the
ante when needed. It combines principle with strategic 

A third virtue is the way that Lukianoff scrutinizes all
the contexts in which intellectual liberty is compromised . He takes an ideal-type freshman on a personal journey through his
or her first college encounters, focusing on key problem areas: rules and
regulations that restrict truly honest and diverse discourse, such as prohibitions against inappropriate laughter, criticism of political
affiliation; prohibitions of inconvenient or uncomfortable
viewpoints in dorm life, in student orientation sessions, and in the classroom; the imposition of “free speech
zones”; the  Kafkaesque processes of student judiciaries; the politics and rules governing the
operation of student groups; and the misbehavior of campus authorities and bureaucrats.

Among the most amazing cases Lukianoff presents are instances of campus authorities punishing students for simply criticizing
administrative actions. In the book’s first case, the
president of Valdosta State University expels a student because the
student publicly criticized the president’s decision to build a new parking lot
on campus. It took a federal court to reinstate the student.

A fourth outstanding virtue of the book is that it is
written in the spirit of such figures as Alexander Hamilton and Judge Learned
Hand, who famously taught us that liberty cannot prevail if it is not alive in
the hearts and minds of citizens. Accordingly, Unlearning Liberty strives to educate readers about the deeper arguments for free thought that underpin the First Amendment. Drawing
on thoughtful theorists of free expression, Lukianoff illustrates how
freedom of thought and speech are indispensable to intellectual growth,
character development, and democratic citizenship. He discusses how these
virtues depend upon exposing individuals to all relevant ideas, especially
those with which one disagrees, and teaching them how to formulate and defend
their own thoughts. Higher education’s emphasis upon having the “right” ideas
and values in politically charged areas has often short-circuited the minds of too
many young adults who have entered the adult world.

Crimes of omission are bad enough, but crimes of
commission are worse. The most disturbing implication of Unlearning Liberty is not that higher education often neglects to
teach and practice liberty–though that is certainly bad enough–but that it is complicit in the very “unlearning” of liberty. Rather than
instructing us in the liberty that Lincoln claimed “consecrates” us as a
people, important domains of higher education are actively teaching us that
liberty is bad. What does this bode for the future?

Lukianoff draws on the meticulous work of such social
scientists as Diana C. Mutz, who shows in Hearing
the Other Side
(2006) that higher education can close minds as much as open
them. Referring to Mutz, Lukianoff writes, “[T]hose with the highest levels of
education have the lowest exposure to
people with conflicting points of view, while those who have not graduated from
high school can claim the most diverse discussion mates.” Ouch!

I know many academics who bemoan the state of political
polarization and paralysis that afflicts our politics today, attributing the
cause to many outside sources. Lukianoff shows us that we may be pointing our
fingers in the wrong direction. The beginning of wisdom, as Socrates said, lies
in “knowing thyself.” Reading Unlearning
is a promising and profound remedial step in that direction. But it
is up to us to take its lessons to heart and to act accordingly. 

One thought on “FIRE Singes the Censors”

  1. Professor Downs understands perfectly what Greg Lukianoff and FIRE are trying to do. As a long-time academic, he has lived through the degradation of the academy and still has sufficient strength and spirit to live through at least the beginning of the counter-revolution. Downs and Lukianoff are both indispensable in the battle to restore liberty to our campuses. (Indeed, in large measure, it was because of Downs’ efforts that the University of Wisconsin became the first campus where a Faculty Senate voted to repeal a faculty speech code. I was there because Downs convinced the free speech faction of the faculty to enlist my advice in that historic effort. For a fuller history of Downs’ historic and essential work, see his excellent book, RESTORING FREE SPEECH AND LIBERTY ON CAMPUS {Cambridge University Press/The Independent Institute, 2005}). HARVEY SILVERGLATE, CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS, F.I.R.E.

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