Opinion

How campus censorship makes us all a little bit dumber

Photo of Greg Lukianoff
Greg Lukianoff
President, FIRE

If you feel that the quality of our national dialogue is at an all-time low, you’re not alone. But why, in a day and age when more of us are college educated than ever before, are we losing the ability to engage in informed, meaningful debate? Shouldn’t we be living in some kind of golden age of national dialogue?

In our latest video (see below), the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work) sheds light on one potential contributing factor to this incongruity: decades of censorship on the modern college campus is teaching students all the wrong lessons about free speech and meaningful discourse.

FIRE has seen shocking cases of speech violations at colleges and universities across America. Take, for instance, the University of New Hampshire student who was evicted from his dorm for posting a joking flyer about the “Freshman 15.” Or consider the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis student who was found guilty of racial harassment for simply reading a book. Even those students who are not specifically targeted by college censors often fall prey to the chilling effect of campus-wide restrictions on their freedom of expression, such as the ever-popular speech code.

My new book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, examines the real-world costs of such censorship. When students internalize the concept that controversial speech should be punished, it encourages them to stay within like-minded groups instead of learning to exchange ideas with students who disagree with them. They also learn how to use cheap tactics, such as claiming to be outraged or offended (sometimes sincerely and sometimes not), to either sidestep or silence ideas they dislike. Attempts at repression don’t much tend to actually change minds, but they certainly do short-circuit honest discussion and promote a tedious groupthink. In this way, campus censorship supercharges ideological divisions. This is why our nation’s astronomically expensive higher education apparatus, which could be helping make our discourse better, smarter, and more in-depth, may actually be making it worse.

When these students graduate, they bring this unscholarly sense of certainty with them into the larger society. We have all seen the results. Think about the outcry over controversial speech by figures like Juan Williams, Rush Limbaugh, and Larry Summers. These instances could have served as opportunities to debate and discuss important ideas, but they instead became weapons of ideological warfare. And when feigned or tactical outrage and cheap dodges replace substantive discourse, we all become just a little bit dumber.


Greg Lukianoff is an attorney and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.