Interview: Greg Lukianoff of FIRE on Unlearning Liberty
It's relatively easy for college students to avoid getting into trouble via political correctness, campus speech codes and the stifling of free speech. "Talk to the students you already agree with, join the groups that are ideologically similar to you. Don’t disagree with professors who have strong opinions because they might punish you either in grading or just punish you...if you follow these simple rules, you can really avoid a lot of the trouble that we see at FIRE," Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, tells me in my interview today.
"But there’s a problem with that," he's quick to add. "Talking to the people we already agree with is exactly what’s wrong with our entire society. And the one institution that could be helping make this problem better is higher education. But it can’t even come close to working towards that goal if you can get in trouble for having the wrong point of view."
And these days, as Lukianoff explains during our interview focusing on his new book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, "having the wrong point of view" is determined almost entirely by students and faculty with a hair-trigger sense of aggrievement. Lukianoff explains that each of the following incidents have led students to FIRE:
● Wearing a t-shirt with an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote.
● Being judged by the cover of the books you read. (In this case, the history book, Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan.)
● Having a bible studies meeting in your dorm.
● Campus officials asking “When did you discover your sexual identity?”
And much more. click here to listen:
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MR. DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll for PJMedia.com, and we're talking with Greg Lukianoff, the president of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education. He's also the author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. It's published by Encounter Books and available from Amazon.com and your local bookstore.
And Greg, thank you for stopping by today.
MR. LUKIANOFF: Thanks so much for having me.
MR. DRISCOLL: Greg, in November of 2004, when Tom Wolfe was on the road promoting I am Charlotte Simmons, and was speaking in San Francisco of all places, I watched a middle-aged man during Wolfe’s Q&A session with the audience stand up and say, “Mr. Wolfe, lie to me if you have to. But tell me I’m not sending my daughter off to Sodom and Gomorrah University next year.” But I imagine that inside the walls of the original Sodom and Gomorrah, there was likely just a bit more freedom of speech than the modern university. How did today’s speech codes develop on campus and where do they stand these days with most universities?
MR. LUKIANOFF: Well, FIRE has made some progress against speech codes over the years. But here's what that progress means. When we first started doing our huge survey of speech codes across the country, we found that seventy-five percent of top universities maintain what we call red light speech codes. That means codes that they either violate or would violate First Amendment standards. And after years of fighting this, five years later, we're down to sixty-three percent of colleges maintain red light speech codes.
And this is interesting, because there's a popular myth that politically correct speech codes came into existence in the 1980s, with the height of political correctness. And since they were defeated consistently in court, and since they were laughed at in the court of public opinion, that these codes all sort of just faded away. And one of the things I really try to address in the book is that's entirely wrong. Amazingly, even though they were defeated -- and they are always defeated when they're challenged in court -- and even though the public right, left, and center -- at least off campus -- laughed at these codes at the time and said that they were outrageous, speech codes just kept on increasing for years afterwards.
MR. DRISCOLL: Do you run into people who say to you, “Oh, all that political correctness, all those speech codes, that’s not really happening in real life!”
MR. LUKIANOFF: We run into it all the time -- and I've complained about this in the book and in Reason Magazine -- about how I think that part of the problem is that since we live in a culture where there's such a us and them mentality -- us versus them mentality, that, somehow, a good portion of the public kind of see defending higher education as part of being us, even though the stuff that higher education pulls is stuff that, when I actually get to explain it in a speech, they go, well, that's outrageous; well, that's not right. But nonetheless, I think that the issue of free speech on campus oftentimes gets treated as a sort of "conservative niche" issue, as primarily a tactic just for dismissing its importance.
MR. DRISCOLL: How did FIRE come to be created as an effort to push back against all of this?
MR. LUKIANOFF: Well, it was founded by Alan Charles Kors, who's a professor of the Enlightenment at Penn, and Harvey Silverglate, who's a civil liberties attorney out of Boston. And they got together in 1998 and wrote a book called The Shadow University, which was the sort of precursor to Unlearning Liberty. And after writing this book, which was an expose of violations of free speech and due process -- really outrageous violations -- they got so many requests for help, after writing the book, that they realized they had to set up a nonprofit to defend free speech and due process on campus.
MR. DRISCOLL: What is a typical process for a student to come to FIRE, and how do they find out about the foundation's existence?
MR. LUKIANOFF: Well, there's only one constituency in the whole country where most people know who or what FIRE is, and that's campus administrators. And that's because we're their watchdogs. So they don't necessarily like us very much, but they know who we are.
And what's interesting about that is sometimes even though there are administrators who can't -- don't like the fact that we're watching what they do, other administrators will actually send students who have been wronged our way. They'll do it, sometimes, a little bit covertly but say, there is this group that can really help you out, and they're extremely successful every time they fight a case, so submit a case to FIRE. And then there -- in other cases, we go and look through the student media -- through student newspapers and find out about stories of students having their rights abused -- or professors, for that matter -- and then we reach out to the students ourselves.
MR. DRISCOLL: And how do the officials respond when they get contacted?
MR. LUKIANOFF: It's a mixed bag. It really is funny because we -- I feel like ultimately, we're pretty nice about it, in the sense that we give universities a chance to back down first. We send a letter to the university. It's on their -- it's their choice whether or not they want to respond to it or fix the problem. We give them a little preview of how this is going to look in a press release. And universities sometimes back down after they get that letter.
Amazingly, though, so many other universities choose to wait till FIRE does a press release, and they have to back down publicly before doing the right thing by their students and faculty.
MR. DRISCOLL: Well, what have been some of the toughest battles that FIRE has fought?
MR. LUKIANOFF: Oh, wow, we've had so many of them. I definitely think that the -- one battle that I remember, that I talk about in the book, was a case at the University of Wisconsin, where the University of Wisconsin was trying to tell a Christian student, who was also a resident assistant -- a dorm official -- that he couldn't have Bible study meetings in his own room, on his own time. And when they were asked to defend this and to explain it, the rationale that they came back with was, essentially, that we have some students on the floor who might not be comfortable talking to you if they knew you're an evangelical Christian.
And I'm not religious, but I went to University of Wisconsin and just had to explain to them, can you imagine saying that to any other student? Can you imagine saying -- it's like, you know, I know you're Jewish, but we have some anti-Semites on the floor, so it's great that you're Jewish, just be Jewish off campus. They would never do something like that. But for some reason, when dealing with an evangelical, they felt it was perfectly acceptable to say be religious off campus.
And believe it or not, that fight took months and months and threatened litigation from the Alliance Defense Fund, letter after letter by FIRE. The university did not want to back down in that case.
MR. DRISCOLL: How did it resolve itself?
MR. LUKIANOFF: Oh, finally they did exactly what we told them to do. And what we told them to do from the very beginning was saying, listen, if what you're concerned about is that someone's going to use inappropriate pressure to try to encourage students to convert to a religion in an unprofessional way, then by all means, you have the power to police that. But just assuming that an evangelical Christian cannot be, essentially, trusted to deal with -- to have interactions with all students is just outrageous and unacceptable. So they basically did what we told them to do from the very beginning. And they could have saved themselves a lot of money, a lot of time, and a lot of bad press.
MR. DRISCOLL: Is it true that the police have occasionally been called in by a campus when they believe that a student has violated a campus speech code?
MR. LUKIANOFF: Absolutely. One of the most ridiculous ones that I heard that, actually, I don't think it's in the book, was one of these programs that they have. And believe it or not, they have these very serious-minded "diversity programs" where they'll explain how great these programs are. And they had one of these -- I went to a session about the program that they had at Syracuse. And they were really trying to sell people on this program.
But it was such a ridiculous program because what it meant was paid university officials were going around reading what students had written on their dry-erase boards and then writing them down. And if they found something particularly offensive -- dry-erase boards are the little things they put on their doors to leave messages to each other -- and when they find something offensive, they would take some action against it.
But they found an Asian student -- someone had written "I like rice" on her dry erase board. So they called the police. And when the police showed up and they talked to this Asian student, she explained that she had written "I like rice" on her dry-erase board because she does, and she was kind of making a joke out of it.
And it was amazing to think that they wasted the police's time to -- and then couldn't really wrap their head around the idea that it's kind of like, yeah, someone was making a joke. This is the way twenty -- nineteen, twenty-year-olds talk. They can be self-deprecating. They can be working with many levels of irony. But nonetheless,
even -- and despite the fact that this program, by its own measures, actually increased the number -- the amount of hurtful and offensive speech within that dorm, they still thought that this was a great idea.
MR. DRISCOLL: On the FIRE web site, you have a press release that begins, "The University of Delaware subjects students in its residence halls to a shocking program of ideological reeducation that is referred to in the university's own materials as a 'treatment' for students' incorrect thoughts and beliefs." Could you talk a bit about this and explain why someone at the University of Delaware didn't stop to say, my God, calling it a treatment sounds absolutely Orwellian; maybe we should stop and think about this for a moment?
MR. LUKIANOFF: Well, if people read the book for no other reason, read it for the University of Delaware case. There's no way I can explain how horrible that case was without taking up a couple hours of explaining it. And the idea that it should have dawned on them that calling it a treatment was -- meant something wrong, they were so far gone in this entire program, I don't think that there was any, really, hope for common sense to prevail.
So the entire program was designed as a psychological treatment for all 7,000 students in the dorms. And this is not for students who have done something wrong; this is just for students attending University of Delaware. And the entire goal of it was to prevent their horribly, presumably racist and sexist students from being racist and sexist.
Now, what makes this particularly funny was they had surveyed the students about their attitudes about all sorts of issues before they came in, which is pretty invasive by itself. But the results were that this was a very tolerant, open-minded generation of students, to nobody's surprise. But nonetheless, since the residence life officials had been trained by someone named Shakti Butler, who has a program that explains that -- without any sense of irony about saying this whatsoever -- that all whites are inherently racist and that no nonwhite can actually be racist.
They saw it as -- that the duty of this program was to fix the moral illness of American society, and it included high pressure programs, like, there was a floor exercise that was mandatory, where if you -- you talked about various social issues, and if you're on the wrong side of that social issue, you went to the -- to one wall, and if you're on the right side of it, you went to the other one. Which basically equals a flat-out public shaming of people with "wrong" points of view.
But probably the creepiest part of it was that they had these mandatory one-on-one meetings with your RA. And one of the incidents that I talk about in the book, which is -- and all this is fully documented -- was a freshman girl who had to go to her mandatory one-on-one with her male RA, and she had to fill out a questionnaire about what races and sexes she would date, with the goal of getting her to be more open-minded about what races and sexes she would date.
When she got to the question, "When did you discover your sexual identity?" her answer was: “None of your damn business.” And that is absolutely an appropriate answer to give to a state employee who wants to pry into your sex life. But the amazing thing is not just that this program happened but that she actually ended up getting written up for being supposedly rude to her RA, who was asking her questions that he had no right to find out the answers to.
MR. DRISCOLL: Greg, you mentioned a few moments ago that universities tend to have trouble understanding anything that’s humorous or satirical. In your book, there’s an anecdote about F. Scott Fitzgerald being controversial on campus in 2009. Could you talk a bit about that story?
MR. LUKIANOFF: Yeah, now that's an amazing case. Yale and Harvard have their big football game that they play every year. And they've been making fun of each other, brutally, for decades and decades now, about the game. And sometimes the T-shirts that they make for the game are really pretty vulgar. One of them one year was, "You can't spell Harvard without VD." They're not necessarily tasteful jokes.
But one year -- I think it was 2009, the Yale freshman class went with something that was actually pretty highbrow, which was a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald from, I think, "Tender is the Night". And the quote read: "In my opinion, all Harvard men are sissies, like I used to be." And they cut off the "like I used to be" and just said, "In my opinion, all Harvard men are sissies. - F. Scott Fitzgerald," and "We agree" underneath it.
Cute, a lot tamer than those T-shirts usually are, but when one student complained that this was actually intended as an anti-gay slur, a dean got involved and banned the T-shirt. She pulled it, and the students were -- completely understood that they were being ordered that they could not have this T-shirt. And it makes it just especially ironic because that is not at all what F. Scott Fitzgerald meant when he was writing it. If it had been, he would have been describing himself as formerly gay. It was not the way it was intended, and it's also an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, for goodness' sakes.
MR. DRISCOLL: Oh, I know. Some people think that students just roll their eyes and secretly laugh while they’re being exposed to four years of intense political correctness, and then just and get on with their lives once they graduate. Others believe that this indoctrination plays a major impact on American life in general, as students take their college indoctrination out into the real world. What are your thoughts on how political correctness and campus speech codes impact American society as a whole.
MR. LUKIANOFF: Great question. I think that it has -- I think there is a lot of eye rolling for the political correctness on campus. But I think one way that it impacts students on campus, and bleeds out in the larger world, is that when you create a risk for saying the wrong thing, whether it's just social or if it's actual punishment -- and as I show in case after case, there is a real risk of actual punishment on campuses for saying the wrong thing -- you create an environment where the safest course of action is to keep your nose clean, talk to the students you already agree with, join the groups that are ideologically similar to you. Don't disagree with professors who have strong opinions because they might punish you either in grading or just punish you.
And that's one of the reasons why, I think, you don't see as many students being so outraged about what's going on in campuses, because if you follow these simple rules, you can really avoid a lot of the trouble that we see at FIRE.
But there's a problem with that. Talking to the people we already agree with is exactly what's wrong with our entire society. And the one institution that could be helping make this problem better is higher education. But it can't even come close to working towards that goal if you can get in trouble for having the wrong point of view.
And the interesting thing is this also plays out in research. There's an inverse relationship between how much education you have and how many people you talk to that you disagree with. So people with a high school education talk to a lot of people they disagree with on a weekly or monthly basis; people with PhDs talk to the fewest.
And to me that's outrageous. And it shows that universities are failing in teaching the crucial intellectual sense of duty to seek out the intelligent person you disagree with. But when you're creating consequences for trying to actually have meaningful discussions, universities cannot hope to get better at this.
MR. DRISCOLL: For people who want to help FIRE or get involved in fighting for campus free speech, what can they do?
MR. LUKIANOFF: Oh, please go to The FIRE.org, donate. We're hoping to make a feature doc -- a feature documentary about these crazy cases, because so many of these cases have to be seen to be believed. People have to see the student explaining: Hi, my name is Keith John Sampson, and I was found guilty of racial harassment just for publicly reading a book. You can learn more about that in the book. But any and all help spreading the word -- because we don't have to put up with campus censorship as some kind of new normal.
MR. DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll for PJMedia.com, and we've been talking with Greg Lukianoff, the president of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education. He's the author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. It's published by Encounter Books, available from Amazon.com and your local bookstore.
And Greg, thank you, once again, for stopping by today.
MR. LUKIANOFF: Thank you.
(End of recording)
Transcribed by eScribers.net, with minor revisions (including hyperlinks) by Ed Driscoll. Thumbnail on PJM homepage created using images from Shutterstock.com.