In my forthcoming book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, I talk about how the bad intellectual habits of the Academy are harming our nation. Campus censorship has not succeeded in making unpopular opinions on campus go away. Instead, the threat of being punished for the wrong opinion leads students to talk only to people with whom they already agree, rather than engage in the wonderful and sometimes painful process of debating and discussing important ideas with intelligent dissenters. The ever-present threat of being punished for the wrong opinion and the social atmosphere that this threat creates means that the one institution that could be helping us transcend groupthink and political bi-polarity is actually supercharging those problems. The Academy has also legitimized a whole toolbox of easy, unscholarly outs for the difficult discussions our society needs to be having. For example, we have taught students that a claim of offense is sufficient to shut down or short-circuit debate and discussion. Can graduates honestly be blamed if they use those claims to avoid discussions they simply don’t want to have, or even worse, if they use it half-genuinely to silence people they simply dislike? You can see this tactic all over our society today, whether it be the case of Naomi Schaefer-Riley, Juan Williams, Rush Limbaugh, or even Bill Maher. Simply put, forcing students to walk on eggshells at the one institution whose entire reason for existence is to make us deeper, more sophisticated thinkers is making us all a little bit dumber.
And let’s not forget the greatest consequence of the gradual acceptance of campus censorship as a normal fact of life and higher education: students have come to accept speech codes and even tiny free speech zones that violate their First Amendment rights. They have also come to accept that they can get in trouble for speaking their minds in class — a problem so striking that sociologists puzzle over why we have produced a “silent generation.” Studies even show that as few as 30% of college seniors strongly agree with the statement “it’s safe to hold unpopular views on campus.” [PDF] When selective censorship of dissent is accepted as an everyday experience, and even a beneficial force, how long can we honestly expect the next generation to fiercely defend it as a principle? As FIRE Co-founder Alan Charles Kors so eloquently and succinctly put it, “A nation that does not educate in liberty will not long endure in liberty and it will not even know when it is lost.”
Oh yes, of course, Go FIRE! Go Browncoats!
Greg Lukianoff is an attorney and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.