Needless to say, “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate” will strike close to home for many Wesleyan students. This book, written by Greg Lukianoff and published in 2012, explores the evolution of free speech rights on college campuses and unveils what Lukianoff perceives as a rise of censorship that has swept the nation’s institutes of higher education.
Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), writes articles regularly on free speech and education. His work at FIRE served as the foundation for “Unlearning Liberty”; the organization’s mission is to defend free speech, religious liberty, and due-process rights across campuses. FIRE’s cases are usually submitted by students, and are handled by FIRE staff intervention or, when necessary, litigated with FIRE’s “Legal Network.”
Lukianoff prefaces his book with a note on the political dynamics surrounding campus censorship. He writes that although he considers himself liberal and that his mission to defend student and faculty speech rights is consistent with this view, he is often “vilified as an evil conservative.” This is because, he says, much of the speech FIRE works to defend is advocating conservative positions; on college campuses, this speech tends to face more scrutiny.
“Unlearning Liberty” is a smooth read, with an emphasis on case studies and a smattering of political philosophy. Lukianoff cites John Stuart Mill, focusing on his argument that dissenting voices need to be protected not only because there is some possibility they could be right, but also because the discussion inspired by dissent can strengthen and clarify everyone’s views.
Unfortunately, Lukianoff argues, the ability to present dissenting opinions is being eroded. One focus of the book is the adoption of speech codes by many universities. These are often vague and unenforceable, for example including a complete prohibition of “hurtful” or “offensive” speech. Not only is speech that falls under these categories integral to free thought and free discussion, but these codes are also often enforced arbitrarily by administrations to silence speech they find personally objectionable.
Lukianoff also makes the point that people have lost the drive to protect their own Constitutional rights, accepting certain limitations without really questioning them. He attributes this to dynamics rooted in elementary and high schools, where rules are structured to emphasize protection of “feelings” and the image of the administrations rather than on protection of student rights. As a result, he adds, apathy abounds as people internalize a new norm.
The book, while getting perhaps a bit repetitive with its reliance on case studies that are all similar in nature, definitely provides readers with plenty of anecdotes with which they can pepper their conversations. For example, readers learn that in 2006, Drexel University’s speech code included a ban on “inconsiderate jokes” and “inappropriately directed laughter.” At Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, a janitor was threatened with disciplinary action on the grounds of racial harassment for “openly” reading a historical account of the Ku Klux Klan while on his break.
I would recommend this book to any Wesleyan student who is looking to feel slightly uncomfortable. In addition to “no-brainers” such as the Ku Klux Klan anecdote, Lukianoff defends, or at least entertains, situations that many would find repugnant, such as fat-shaming dorm posters and exclusionary religious groups.
It seems very much that the book is directed at an audience that would naturally disagree with many of its conclusions. It aggressively forces readers to consider difficult questions. At what point does expressing a view become the equivalent of censoring another one? Where is the line drawn between insensitivity and harassment? Can preventing another person’s free speech be defended on the grounds that you are expressing your own?
Although the Wesleyan administration is nowhere near instituting “free-speech corners” (designated spots that are the only free-speech protected locations on campus), as has happened at several universities discussed in the book, it is interesting to consider the extent of our free speech rights, given the framework Lukianoff outlines. Another type of censorship, perhaps, comes from within the student body; often I have heard the complaint that as tolerant as our population claims to be, it is difficult to express unpopular views without coming under fire.
“Unlearning Liberty” is a worthwhile read that provides a good perspective for students who want to approach campus life with their eyes open a little bit wider. You will be surprised how often you find yourself laughing (both with amusement and with disgust) and pleased with the philosophical conversations this book provokes over dinner.