‘Unlearning Liberty’ author interview: How college administrators murdered free speech

Robby Soave Reporter
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Perhaps nowhere are First Amendment values more imperiled than at the modern American college campus — the very place where free speech should be most dearly cherished and vigorously upheld.

So argues Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and author of “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate,” which was released in paperback this week.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Caller, Lukianoff spelled out precisely what’s wrong with universities, from the Ivy League to community college — they routinely punish students for even the most harmless and inoffensive speech.

“It’s becoming quite easy to get in trouble for just questioning the administration, depending upon who your university president or administrators are,” Lukianoff told The DC.

Many people have the wrong impression about the state of discourse in academia, falsely believing that Supreme Court decisions settled the matter decades ago. While it is true that courts have consistently upheld college students’ First Amendment rights, the rulings have not stopped enthusiastic censors at both private and public universities from criminalizing free speech, said Lukianoff.

Sadly, society isn’t paying enough attention. When Lukianoff tells people of the plight of the modern college campus, he often hears the opinion that the censorship is acceptable because it’s well-intentioned — an idea that “just scares me to death,” he said.

“A previous generation, if you told them you were going to get in trouble for your opinion on college campuses, the generation of the 60s and the 70s, it was completely outrageous to them,” he said. “You didn’t have to explain why it was a big deal. Now when I go to campuses I hear a lot more from students saying, ‘Well it’s well-intentioned… it’s not that big of a deal.’”

The assertion that censorship is usually well-intentioned is simply false, said Lukianoff. FIRE has covered numerous cases where vindictive administrators cracked down on students specifically because they were publicizing harsh truths or uncomfortable details about the university.

Administrative bloat is partly to blame. Though faculty salaries and employment levels have remained largely steady–or even fallen–the ranks of the bureaucratic class has grown exponentially at universities. A report by the American Institutes for Research found that “on most college campuses, the majority of workers are not teaching students.”

What are all these low and mid-level administrators doing instead? Many of them are censoring students.

“They simply don’t like being criticized; they simply don’t like being disagreed with,” said Lukianoff. “So the huge expansion of the administrative class at universities is one of the reasons things have gotten so bad for free speech on college campuses.”

An illustrative case is the one from Modesto Junior College, where an administrator and campus security officer barred a student from handing out copies of the Constitution on Constitution days — violating the explicit free speech precepts found in America’s governing document. (RELATED: Campus cop stops student from handing out Constitutions … ON CONSTITUTION DAY)

Unfortunately, students are learning from the administrators, and increasingly respond to differing opinions in a manner befitting the thought-police.

“Speech codes, all of these attempts to shut down opinions with which we disagree, all of these tactics that administrators us, are teaching students all the wrong lessons about what it means to live in a free society,” he said. “It teaches students to think like censors.”

What happened at Brown University last year is a good example. A mob of far-left students heckled New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, the controversial proponent of stop-and-frisk, until he gave up on his attempted guest lecture.

The leaders of the mob protest proudly proclaimed that they were merely exercising their free speech rights, even though their actions were anathema to the First Amendment. (RELATED: Liberal mob shouts down speaker at Brown U, calls it ‘free speech’ [VIDEO])

Unlearning Liberty provides countless other examples of students, administrators –and sometimes, even faculty members — violating the essential free speech principles that made American universities vital and relevant in the first place.

Perhaps the most shocking case uncovered by FIRE was a program of total indoctrination within the dormitories of the University of Delaware. Some 7,000 students lived in the residence halls, where they were continuously besieged by residence advisors whose explicit goals were to re-educate them about social and political matters. Students were forced to repent their views and adopt liberal positions on abortion, racism, gay marriage and other controversial issues. Otherwise, they were disciplined.

The program, deemed “Orwellian” by FIRE, was marketed as a “treatment for students’ incorrect attitudes and beliefs.”

“They thought it was the university’s business to figure what races and sexes students would date and quiz them and more or less make them more open to dating people of different races and different sexes,” said Lukianoff. “When one student actually answered ‘none of your damn business’ to this invasive questionnaire, which is an entirely appropriate response from a citizen in a free society, they actually wrote her up for being rude to an RA.”

The program at Delaware was shut down, thanks to FIRE’s intervention. Unfortunately, nearly 60 percent of American colleges maintain unconstitutional speech codes that censor students in one way or another. (RELATED: Annual report shows most colleges remain anti-free speech hellholes)

A society where college campuses are some of the least free places to speak will not remain a free society for long, warns Unlearning Liberty.

“I am shocked on a daily basis by the kind of violations of free speech you see on college campuses,” said Lukianoff.

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