Free speech in higher education
When students or professors challenge campus orthodoxies, administrators find a way to silence them. But when speakers take positions that are comfortable to the campus Left, administrators turn on a dime, suddenly posing as First Amendment purists.
Nakba Day event at Tel Aviv University Photo: REUTERS/Nir Elias
Nothing is more clichéd in higher education than the selective invocation of
freedom of speech. When students or professors challenge campus orthodoxies,
administrators find a way to silence them. But when speakers take positions that
are comfortable to the campus Left, administrators turn on a dime, suddenly
posing as First Amendment purists.
Greg Lukianoff, president of the
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and a liberal, observes
that “you are far more likely to get in trouble on campus for opposing, for
example, affirmative action, gay marriage and abortion rights than you are for
Since support for Israel is now increasingly viewed as
a conservative issue, just about anything goes when it comes to
It is refreshingly rare to find a commentator who will
unflinchingly support freedom of expression whether politically correct or
incorrect. Fifteen years ago, such a voice was found in the writing team of
Charles Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglade. Their milestone volume, The Shadow
University: The Betrayal Of Liberty On America's Campuses, opened eyes to
surprisingly widespread censorship in US universities. The Shadow University was
so successful that Kors and Silverglade were able to found FIRE, the civil
liberties organization which Lukianoff now heads.
TODAY, THE campus
situation is hardly better, except for the good work that FIRE now does.
Lukianoff has just published a new book that carries the torch from where The
Shadow University left off: Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of
American Life, New York: Encounter Books, 2012. Lukianoff is a deft writer with
a light touch and good humor, which makes for an entertaining and enlightening
Lukianoff's stories of heavy-handed censorship are often
cringe-worthy in light of the lip-service that American educators give to the
free speech and academic freedom. In case after case, Lukianoff reveals
administrators to be vindictive when protecting their prerogatives, enforcing
political correctness or silencing their critics. Lukianoff demonstrates that
campus censorship betrays civil liberties, undermines democratic values,
disserves open debate and limits educational effectiveness.
one fault is that Unlearning Liberty never resolves the Hobson’s choice which
university administrators too often have to make when confronting offensive
speech. On the one hand, they can censor the speech, punishing students or
faculty who cross their lines. On the other, they can look the other way,
ignoring speech which maybe hurtful or disruptive.
administrators are inequitable, shuttling between these two positions based on
happenstance, caprice, or political pressure. Lukianoff condemns the former
option but seems to leave them with nothing but the latter.
There is a
better way, although Lukianoff does not say so. In fact, the right response to
offensive speech is seldom for administrators to do nothing. While punishing the
perpetrator is rarely the right answer, administrators always have other
options. The best course is often for administrators to speak out, in a firm but
non-threatening way. A strong leader can condemn the offensive speech,
articulate their institution’s values and educate the community about civility
norms. To ignore this point is to reinforce the Hobson’s choice which leads to
either censorship or abdication.
FOR EXAMPLE, Lukianoff tells the story
of sociologist William Robinson of the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Professor Robinson gained notoriety in January 2009 when he emailed his students
approximately 40 photographs juxtaposing Israeli soldiers in Gaza with Nazi
soldiers at a concentration camp. In his accompanying message, Robinson spelled
out his view that Israel is perpetrating a “slow-motion process of
Two of Robinson’s Jewish students were deeply hurt by
Robinson’s missive, and the university briefly investigated their claims that
Robinson had acted unprofessionally in sending it. In response, Robinson’s
allies organized a worldwide campaign which condemned both the two students and
the university for trying to censor Robinson.
True to form, Lukianoff
sides with Robinson, arguing that the university should not punish him for a
message which related, at least arguably, to the subject of his course.
Lukianoff argues that “attitudes about Israel on campus would only worsen if
students and faculty suddenly found themselves punished for criticizing
This view is not unreasonable, although one could debate whether
Robinson’s photographs involved more than just criticism. The problem is that
Lukianoff stops short here, as he typically does in his stories.
not reflect on how a true leader might alleviate the students’ sincere trauma,
not to mention Robinson’s dubious analysis, without limiting academic
A wise university president could condemn Robinson’s conduct
without making a free speech martyr out of him. In such cases, university
leaders must break out of the Hobson’s choice of censorship or abdication, and
rights advocates like Lukianoff should show them how to do it.
is president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human
Rights Under Law.