How Censorship on Campus Affects You


I am both honored and delighted to be guest posting on Ricochet this week to talk about my new book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. I am a First Amendment lawyer and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, most commonly referred to as FIRE. (Note: all royalties from the sale of Unlearning Liberty go to FIRE).

Unlearning Liberty is the product of my more than a decade of experience fighting speech codes, absurd incidents of campus censorship, invasions of the right of private conscience and freedom of religion, and abuses by the ever-growing ranks of campus administrators that are flatly unconstitutional at public colleges and, frankly, immoral at private universities that claim to believe in freedom of speech.

This video does a good job of summing up the major themes of the book, which I’ll be talking about all week. In the book, I start by demonstrating that it’s shockingly easy to get in trouble for your opinion on the modern college campus, before digging deeper to reveal how censorship on campus has a harmful effect on our entire society. I believe censorship fosters group polarization, teaches the college-educated cheap and easy dodges to meaningful debate and discussion, and, perhaps most worryingly, makes students distressingly comfortable with grossly unconstitutional restrictions on their freedom of speech, and far too trusting in the power and wisdom of authorities.

If you want to learn more about the cases discussed in the video, I’ve copied links below to each case’s respective case page on the FIRE website, where you can find in-depth analyses from FIRE staff and all supporting documents:

There are 10 comments.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive

    Having worked as a Resident Advisor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I’m all too familiar with the absurd lengths the school will go to cater to certain opinions and denounce other opinions.  BUT I do have a question for Mr. Lukianoff.  

    What do you make of the Harvard BDSM club that has recently garnered so much attention?  I don’t know the specifics, but it sounds like a club of this nature, that will receive some funding, is less about the debate of ideas, and more about promoting a genuinely (and I use this word because you used it in your post) immoral lifestyle.  Should Harvard have intervened?

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  2. Profile Photo Contributor

    Generally, I am for more groups being recognized, not fewer. Trust me, if Harvard had the power to shut down a group because they did not like its morals, it would more likely come down on, say, an Evangelical Christian group than the BDSM. I recommend you check out this video about that very thing going on at Vanderbilt U:

    And this article about the same thing at Tufts:

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    The Vanderbilt video sounds all too familiar.  A Christian singing group called Psalm 100 had this same controversy at UNC.  The primary concern that kept popping up in various op-eds in the school newspaper, was that students didn’t want to fund groups that they found immoral.  Several groups floated the idea that students should have a voucher style program so that student fees (which amounted to over 1,000 dollars per year) could be allocated to specific groups rather than to student congress who then allocates them out.  UNC already had a health care program where you either opted out of buying insurance or you were automatically enrolled.  It seems like they could have had it so that students that had a real concern could opt to have their funds directly linked to a specific group, otherwise it would simply be given to the student congress “pool.”  The idea never made it anywhere, but I’d be interested to see how this would effect the free speech debate, since you couldn’t complain about your money funding “bad” groups.  

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  4. Profile Photo Inactive

    Dr. Lukianoff: I’ve been a fan ever since your appearance in Indoctrinate U. Thanks so much for your leadership in such a vital realm as free speech in higher education.

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  5. Profile Photo Contributor

    Thank you, Paul! I am glad you knew that was me. I still get people ask me if I have ever heard of IU. 

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  6. Profile Photo Inactive

    Dr. Lukianoff: that’s funny! It’s not as if your presence in the film is a small one. Do you reply “Yes, I’ve heard of it. Have you watched it?” :-)

    So, at the risk of asking you to rehearse what’s probably a facile undergraduate question: how are we to engage in a principled defense of free speech, untrammeled by considerations of who might be “harmed,” a word I’ll deliberately leave undefined for the sake of this discussion, in a judicial and legislative context in which we’ve already compromised by saying “Well, of course it’s not permissible to yell ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre.” It’s always bothered me that we seem to claim the line between that and “censorship,” “speech codes,” etc. is nice and bright and clear, when actually it seems quite problematic to me. Do we only have the right to truthful speech? Speech unlikely to lead to bodily harm? For how many people? Does caveat emptor not apply to the listener? etc.

    Again, my apologies if this is a trivial question and I just need to read a book. :-)

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  7. Profile Photo Inactive

    In a a college where I was employed there was clear discrimination against Christian students and staff.  For that matter hetersexuals were outcasts.  The Residence Hall guide, for which I did the editing, encouraged “experimentation in alternative lifestyles.”

    When a same sex supervisor asked me out for a drink on Valentine’s Day,  I responsed by telling him I had to go to a Bible study.  I was given my walking papers two days later.  Guess I should have stayed in the closet.

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  8. Profile Photo Contributor

    Hey Paul, there is a lot to unpack there, and I took a big part of my book to do it! But as for the “yelling fire in crowded theater” analogy I think Ken from Popehat provided a much needed service by addressing that in detail here:

    As for my thinking on free speech versus, say, the latest call for sensitivity in the form of anti-blasphemy laws, I wrote this: 

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  9. Profile Photo Member

    Bill Whittle fanboy here, givin’ props to BW and Declaration Entertainment. Did Bill just produce a FIRE-written piece?

    Also, am I mis-remembering that UNC had (has?) a Free Speech Zone lined out in The Pit where free speech was allowed from 11:45-noon on Thursdays? Or did I just cynically dream that up?

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  10. Profile Photo Inactive

    That may have been the case, but I never heard of such a thing.  Gary the pit preacher, ( if you are familiar with him, was kind of the symbol of “tolerance” that the administration would talk up in all its literature.  UNC was pretty good when it came to upholding free speech.  Tom Tancredo came and had the windows smashed out (next to my head) in the building he was speaking in and the that kind of set off a whole reevaluation of “free speech” on campus, but the student body was absolutely fascist in its behavior.  The CR’s 9/11 memorial and the pro-life commemoration of roe vs wade were always vandalized, and people from Phylis Schaefly to representatives of the Fredrick Douglas society were always having their events overrun with loud feminists yelling “no dialogue with hate.”  

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