Book Review: Unlearning liberty: campus censorship and the end of American debate

September 2013

In September 2011 the president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, Roger Clegg, addressed a press conference at a hotel near the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin. Knowing that Clegg was a critic of racial preferences in university admissions, UW-Madison's "vice-provost for diversity and climate" had publicly denounced his plan to speak as "a threat to our diversity efforts." At a meeting the vice-provost urged students to "mobilize" in response. Apparently as a result of this incitement, a student mob invaded the hotel, assaulted some of its staff, chased Clegg into an elevator, and tried to prevent the elevator doors from closing. Only through efforts by hotel staff did the speaker make his escape. Though it had arrived as the press conference was ending, too late to prevent supposedly dangerous thoughts from being expressed, the vice-provost was evidently pleased by what he regarded as the mob's good intentions. Instead of deploring their violence, he praised the participating students as "awesome"!

This outrageous incident is only one of many attacks on free expression described in the book under review, the author of which is president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education ( Lukianoff places blame on students and student governments as well as on faculty members, butstill more on what he calls the "ever-growing army of administrators."

Lukianoff tells us that the process of "unlearning liberty" begins even before students arrive on campus. They emerge from high school already accustomed to censorship, and with little grasp of constitutional rights. Since censorship protects them from the need to defend their beliefs by rational argument, they do not acquire the ability to do so. Thus students often see freedom of expression not as creating opportunities for presenting a case in debate, but rather as an obstacle to the "progress" they have been taught to desire. They feel justified in disrupting meetings, shouting down speakers, or stealing all copies of a campus newspaper in order to suppress unwelcome ideas. Student governments deny funding to groups whose opinions displease them, while granting it to others, even though such "viewpoint" discrimination is illegal.

Some professors demand that false assumptions (about "racism," for instance) be accepted as undebatably true, and even require that their students try to influence politicians in the interests of "progressive" causes. In certain departments -- especially education and social work -- academics attempt to impose on students an ideological commitment to "social justice," though (as the author points out) choosing any one definition of "social justice" as the indisputable truth is to risk placing dissenters in the category of "heretics who deserve ostracism, if not outright expulsion from the community." Against accusations of intolerable heresy, having science on your side may be no protection. "It is now commonly accepted that genetics plays a role in many human traits," Lukianoff writes, "yet this concept is often received with horror on campus." If inequalities among individuals and groups arise (at least to a significant degree) from inherited genetic differences, the dream of achieving an egalitarian "social justice" through political indoctrination and activism is fatally flawed -- an unthinkable conclusion.

Students may seek to silence students, and professors may persecute both students and dissident colleagues, but students and faculty alike are vulnerable to persecution by expanding campus bureaucracies armed with absurdly vague "speech codes" and rules of conduct. In prohibitions of "harassment" (sexual, racial, religious or whatever), the term is often defined so broadly that almost everybody can be considered technically guilty of some infraction. Merely to "offend" somebody may be enough. At the University of Iowa, sexual "harassment" is said to occur "when somebody says or does something sexually related that you don't want them to say or do, regardless of who it is." When regulations expose virtually everybody to the risk of disciplinary action, selective enforcement is inevitable, and thus the bias of campus officials in favour of the "historically disadvantaged" becomes decisive. It is clearly safer to make an uncomplimentary remark about Christianity than about Islam, and safer to accuse a white of "racism" than to make the same accusation against a black. Whites and Christians do not enjoy an equal right to be "offended."

Instead of confining themselves to enforcement of negative prohibitions, however sweeping, some campus bureaucracies have imposed mandatory ideological re-education under the guise of "orientation." Students in residence are especially vulnerable to "thought reform" extending far beyond any normal orientation period. One especially ambitious effort to transform students into activists for left-wing causes made the University of Delaware sufficiently notorious that the program was suspended, but somewhat similar schemes survived elsewhere.

Broad restrictions on free speech in state institutions are unconstitutional, as federal courts have ruled whenever a specific case has been brought before them. In 2003, under the second President Bush, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education warned that OCR's anti-"harassment" regulations should not be interpreted as requiring infringement of "rights protected under the First Amendment," but neither this warning nor court decisions have carried much weight with typical academic administrators.

Though Lukianoff identifies himself as a liberal Democrat, he sees Bush's OCR as more respectful of individual rights than the "newly assertive" one under President Obama. In 2011 the OCR proclaimed a policy requiring that in cases of alleged sexual harassment or assault, campus authorities find the accused guilty without insisting on real proof, merely if it appears slightly more likely than not that the accusation is well-founded. The author fears that the combination of ridiculous definitions and this astonishing decree will prove to be "a formula for due process disaster." He cites the misfortune of a student expelled from the University of North Dakota on a charge of sexual assault before the police completed their investigation and charged the accuser with filing a false report.

It is not unreasonable to suspect that Lukianoff's portrayal of campus repression may exaggerate the reality. In his position at FIRE he naturally learns more about outrages than about occasions when wisdom and justice prevail. But the outrages seem numerous enough to form a pattern. In the preface to his major book Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (published in 2006), Dr. Mark Moyar comments on the "very harmful trend at American universities whereby haughty derision and ostracism are used against those whose work calls into question the reigning ideological orthodoxy, stifling debate and leading to defects and gaps in scholarship . . ." If talented scholars can be subjected to such informal pressures to conform, without need for any alleged violation of rules, one must suppose that the pressures on students to conform may be even greater than formal rules suggest. Being so often unconstitutional as well as conspicuously inconsistent with liberty, the rules are easier to fight, whether in court or in the media. FIRE has relied primarily on publicity, with considerable success, but it clearly has much more to do.