Unlearning liberty: Auburn’s censorship of Ron Paul poster is part of larger problem

Greg Lukianoff President, FIRE
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While election season may seem especially surreal this time around — or maybe it just seems that way every four years — nowhere is it stranger than in the weird parallel dimension known as our college campuses.

Every presidential election that I’ve experienced since I’ve been president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has without exception been marred by some ridiculous attempt by university lawyers and administrators to limit political debate and discussion. While some of the censorship clearly arises from a stunning lack of understanding of basic principles of law, others seem to come down to “I believe in free speech … but not when you support the other guy.”

A case arising out of Auburn University in Alabama during the Republican primary season typifies the type of insanity we get to see on a quadrennial basis:

Auburn student Eric Philips made the mistake of hanging a Ron Paul poster in his window, just as he’d seen students do in support of President Obama and other causes throughout his time at Auburn. Within three hours he was told he needed to take it down. Auburn, recycling a claim that FIRE has gotten so used to seeing that we considered putting it on a company T-shirt, argued that the University was simply enforcing a “safety” policy that it had always had against window hangings.

Here’s a free tip to universities: If you’re going to claim a safety rationale for censorship, you’d better not leave evidence lying around that shows that you don’t really think safety is an issue. All Philips had to do to disprove Auburn’s safety claims was walk around campus taking pictures of window hangings left up after he received his speech-code surprise. It wasn’t hard to demonstrate that he had been singled out.

Thankfully, there is good news in the story. According to Philips, the media really understood that a college campus should be a “marketplace of ideas,” encouraging political engagement and disagreement, and getting out of the way of students wishing to advocate for whichever candidate they so choose. The case was covered by local media, John Stossel (who is almost alone among TV journalists in taking issues of campus free speech seriously), and, of course, The Daily Caller. As Philips points out, Auburn learned one of the great truths about censorship: If you try to suppress an idea in a free society, you often actually end up magnifying the message you seek to suppress.

The bad news, however, and as I discuss at some length in my new book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, is that the entire Auburn University community should have been even more outraged than the media. Here was a student being told he couldn’t support the candidate he wanted in a way that students have supported their candidates on that campus and campuses around the country for decades.

Even if this rule was enforced fairly (and to be clear, it wasn’t), students of a previous generation would have organized protests, marches, and maybe even held a candlelight vigil or two to reject the muzzling of their basic political speech in an environment that should be doing everything in its power to encourage the open exchange of ideas.

The problem is that students, educated on campuses that over-regulate and apply double standards to speech, have simply gotten used to it. The process of “unlearning liberty,” which the title of my book refers to, has many stages, but the first is simply misinforming students about the rights they have and the importance of those rights. The most dangerous stages, however, come later, when some students come to believe that not only should they not have those rights, but that censorship is what good and noble people do.

While this case is just a typical example of censorship on campus, the fact that repression of speech has become the new normal in higher education is going to have negative repercussions for all of our freedoms down the road. After all, as FIRE co-founder Alan Charles Kors says, “a nation that does not educate in liberty will not long endure liberty and will not even know when it is lost.”

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