Author Q&A

Q&A with Greg Lukianoff, author of Unlearning Liberty

In one sentence, what is the message of Unlearning Liberty?

GL: Censorship on campus is far worse than you think, it contributes to the sad state of our national discourse and, in the long run, threatens all of our freedoms.

Why did you decide to write Unlearning Liberty?

GL: I wrote Unlearning Liberty because I often feel like I am banging my head against the wall trying to get people to, first, understand how bad censorship on campus has gotten, and, second, to explain why it matters far beyond the campus gates. I went to law school specifically to study First Amendment law, I am a lifelong believer in free speech, and I am particularly interested in the history of freedom of speech, but none of that prepared me for the kind of cases of censorship I would see on campus.

Is campus censorship really as bad as you say it is? What are some of the worst cases you have seen?

GL: Yes! Students and faculty members have been censored for things as basic as reading a book in public, posting a collage on Facebook, producing a comedic play, questioning campus administrators, using an epithet in a classroom to explain its origin, posting a quote from the TV show sci-fi classic Firefly outside an office door, using an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote on a T-shirt, screening a viewing of The Passion of the Christ, studying the Bible during private, personal time, and writing newspaper articles on everything from mold in a sorority house to a local homecoming queen’s legal record.

You have been working for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for 11 years now. What is FIRE’s mission and how does it relate to the book?

GL: In 1998, Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate co-authored The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses. In response, they received hundreds of pleas for help from victims of illiberal policies and double standards that violated their rights. To answer these calls for help and to transform the culture on college campuses, Alan and Harvey founded FIRE. This book picks up where The Shadow University left off, telling the story of campus censorship as it enters the 21st century, but also going further to explain its long-tail effects on the country and culture as a whole.

In your book, you talk a lot about “speech codes.” What is a speech code? Are they really that prevalent on campuses today?

GL: Speech codes are policies on campus that restrict constitutionally protected freedom of expression. They are the policies that are often cited to justify the above cases of censorship. Contrary to popular belief, they didn’t disappear after the PC battles of the 1990s and a large majority of campuses still maintain them, even though they are unconstitutional at public universities.

But aside from a handful of cases, campus speech codes aren’t strictly enforced, right? So, why should we worry about them?

GL: The book provides overwhelming evidence that speech codes are enforced across the country. But even if they weren’t enforced, speech codes create a chilling effect on campus. They discourage students from openly discussing controversial topics out of fear of punishment. This leads students to talk primarily with those they already agree with, which supercharges group polarization rather than providing a real “marketplace of ideas.” Plus, speech codes teach students all the wrong lessons about what it means to live in a free society.

What do you mean when you say speech codes teach students “all the wrong lessons about what it means to live in a free society?”

GL: Beyond outright punishments of students, there is a subtle harm in the existence of speech codes. Speech codes not only misinform students about what their constitutional rights are—thereby undermining the civic benefit of education—they dangerously ignore or even distort the moral and philosophical wisdom of basic rights like freedom of speech.

If speech codes and campus censorship is a threat to our republic and our constitutional rights, why don’t we see more protest from students?

GL: The mere existence of speech codes signals to students that censorship is not just legally acceptable but it is what kind, wise, enlightened people should do. This in part explains the lack of protest to so-called “free speech zones” and the lack of objection to speech codes that limit the rights of the student press—restrictions that would’ve produced outright revolt among the students of the 1960s.

Your work often means you defend the speech of conservatives and evangelicals on campus. Is it right to assume you are both?

GL: No, in fact I am a liberal-leaning atheist. I think one of the problems of the culture wars is that it makes us think so much about who is on “our” side and who is on “theirs” that we forget free speech is just too important to be a partisan issue. Besides, censorship on campus harms us all, whatever our political leanings.

You said earlier that campus censorship “contributes to the sad state of our national discourse.” How?

GL: Social commentators spill a lot of ink these days talking about the lousy state of American discourse. Jon Stewart pokes fun at it almost nightly on his The Daily Show and Bill Maher wrote an article in the New York Times just this spring lamenting America’s addiction to “feigned outrage.” But what comedians and commentators seem to miss is that feigned outrage, the use of the claim “I’m offended” as an all-purpose way of shutting down speech, and the tendency to break down discourse into a simple “us versus them” dichotomy are all tactics that have been legitimized and weaponized on campus over the last 30 years.

So you believe speech codes and campus censorship is responsible for the current state of American discourse?

GL: It’s not that higher education is necessarily responsible for America’s lousy political discourse, but it is our best hope for making that discourse better and it can’t work if students and professors alike can get in trouble for even mildly stepping out of line, saying the “wrong” thing or for, even, cracking the “wrong” joke.