Dismantling Dissent


Books reviewed: Greg Lukianoff. Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. New York: Encounter Books, 2012.

By James D. Hoff

Imagine you’re a junior at a small urban college. You’ve worked hard for two and a half years to earn the respect of your professors and fellow students, you’ve made the Dean’s List every semester, you’ve won several prestigious awards and scholarships, and, because you also care about the world outside of academia and because your parents were raised in West Bank settlements, you’ve helped organize several political rallies and teach-ins about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. As part of that organizing you have asked the political science department to co-sponsor a talk to discuss “Israel’s Claim to Judea” with two of the most prominent supporters of Israeli settlements. Now imagine your dismay when just days after receiving support from the political science department, you read an editorial in the local paper calling your event a “hate-fest,” and demanding that the school withdraw all support for the talk. But that’s not the end of it. As you try to piece together a response to the editorial, you read in the New York Times (wow, things are really getting blown out of proportion) that many local politicians have now become involved and that several of them have even threatened to cut funding to the whole school unless the event is canceled. What began as a difference of opinion on a controversial issue has now become a matter of public policy, and you begin to despair that perhaps you’ve made a huge mistake. As the consequences of this opposition become clear, and as the college president begins to backpedal her initial defense of your event, you decide that perhaps now is not the time and perhaps your college is not the place to debate the settlement of the West Bank. Although upset, you realize that if you want to finish with honors and go to a good graduate school, it’s probably better to avoid any future conflict and just stay below the radar. You’ve learned a valuable lesson about free speech on American college campuses: it pretty much does not exist.

The previous account is largely fictional; however, it closely resembles an actual series of events that many readers will recognize. Although I’ve added a frightened student protagonist and changed the political persuasion of the talk to emphasize that such repression is not limited to one side of the political spectrum, this is pretty much exactly what recently transpired at Brooklyn College, CUNY, where the political science department was blasted with threats and recriminations when it sponsored a panel on the Israeli Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement with Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti.  Brooklyn College President Karen Gould, no critic of Israel, had been inundated with letters from New York City Council members and local politicians, including the usual suspects—Dov Hikind, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, and city council Majority Leader Lewis Fidler, among others—urging her first to distance the college from the event, and then later explicitly threatening future funding to the college if the event was not canceled. Thankfully, Gould stood her ground, insisting that academic freedom was more important than public opinion. But not all college presidents are so steadfast in their defense of academic freedom, and as Samir Chopra, a professor of Philosophy at Brooklyn College explained, “While this turn of events is rightly viewed by those who fought hard to turn back the Dershowtiz-Hikind-invertebrate City Council politician combine as occasion for celebration, what this entire business portends for the future of academic freedom on the American campus is, I think, a little more grim.” Indeed, though Gould did the right thing, the message sent by opponents of academic freedom was received loud and clear. In both the fictional and the real case, what should have been an opportunity for critical engagement with and defense of controversial ideas became a hornet’s nest of animosity and intolerance. The saddest part of this whole affair, however, is that such ugly conflicts are not rare.

Indeed, as Greg Lukianoff asserts in Unlearning Liberty, “on college campuses today, students are punished for everything from mild satire, to writing politically incorrect short stories, to having the ‘wrong’ opinion on virtually every hot button issue, and increasingly, simply for criticizing the college administration.” American colleges have historically been admired and idealized as places of experimentation and debate, where students are encouraged and taught to think for themselves, to question the world around them, and to engage in the heated exchange of ideas. But what if, instead of teaching students to challenge authority and think critically, our universities and colleges are teaching them to shut up and conform? This question is at the heart of Lukianoff’s book and the answers he offers are not comforting. In fact, according to Lukianoff free speech on college campuses has been in stark decline for decades, and Unlearning Liberty offers a relentless catalog of instances where administrators, campus organizations, professors, students, and yes, even politicians, have flagrantly and sometimes cheerfully disregarded or openly violated the principles of free speech and academic freedom. As the director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (F.I.R.E.), Lukianoff is in a prime position to report on such abuses, and the book reads as a kind of who’s who of academic miscreants. In one case after another, Lukianoff describes how college administrations and campus organizations violate the First Amendment rights of faculty and students, and how they almost inevitably lose once those cases are made public or taken to court.

Consider the case of Catawba Valley Community College student Marc Bechtol, who was, as Lukianoff explains, “pulled out of his class and banned from campus after he complained on CVCC’s Facebook page about the college’s aggressive marketing of the creepily named Higher One debit card company to its students.” Exasperated by a barrage of email advertisements and the less than ethical policies of Higher One, Bechtol wrote on CVCC’s Facebook page: “Did anyone else get a bunch of credit card spam in their CVCC inbox today? So, did CVCC sell our names to banks, or did Higher One? I think we should register CVCC’s address with every porn site known to man. Anyone know any good viruses to send them?” Lukianoff says Bechtol “immediately followed up with ‘OK, maybe that would be a slight overreaction.’” Bechtol had overreacted, yes, and was making claims without any real support. Nevertheless, Bechtol had a right to be angry, and he reached out to his fellow students in the best way he knew how. Such outspoken advocacy should be encouraged on college campuses. Arguing that Bechtol’s post represented a threat to the campus, however, CVCC chose instead to suspend him for two semesters. It was only in the face of public scrutiny and outrage, including pressure from F.I.R.E and members of Occupy Wall Street, that CVCC dropped the charges and allowed Bechtol back on campus.

This trend, though troubling for students and academics alike, has much larger implications for our culture as a whole. As Lukianoff is at pains to show, such forms of censorship, whether committed by the Left or the Right, have a significant impact upon public discourse. According to Lukianoff, censorship on college campuses has practically destroyed the possibility of real debate and contributed to a politically polarized culture. “It may seem like a paradox, but an environment that squelches debate and punishes the expression of opinions, in the very institution that is supposed to make us better thinkers, can lead quickly to the formation of polarized groups in which people harbor a comfortable, uncritical certainty that they are right.” Lukianoff is correct, of course. In a culture where the holding of even relatively unorthodox views is socially and sometimes extra-legally punished, and where saying the wrong thing could ruin your future, it makes sense that many people would retreat further into their own biases, speak only to those with whom they already agree, and become more and more certain of their own opinions and less tolerant of others. However, there is a much more odious trend at work here than political polarization and radicalization. The biggest threat of such censorship is not that it creates too much political division, but that it creates too little. Censorship as it exists in academia today—and the Brooklyn College BDS panel is a prime example of this—also drastically limits the realm of possible discourse, so much so that there is little discussion of unpopular ideas that actually matter, and thus fewer possible solutions and alternatives. While the Right and the Left squelch all but the tamest, politically correct discussions of sexual, racial, and religious identity, problems of economic and foreign policy are also increasingly limited to a very narrow band of acceptable discourse. As critical debate on campuses becomes more limited and less valued, colleges are quickly becoming centers for mere acculturation and conformity, where students are indoctrinated into a monolithic discourse of obedient deference, and unorthodox views are blanketly condemned as dangerous, radical or, as in the case of the Brooklyn College BDS talk, racist or anti-Semitic. That such false claims of racism came from a group of so-called progressive Democrats is telling. According to Lukianoff, who is himself an avowed liberal, some of the most insidious cases of campus censorship are coming from the liberal side of the political spectrum.

At the center of this liberal attack upon individual rights is the rise and proliferation of the campus speech code. As Lukianoff puts it in one of the chapter subheads, “PC Went to War with Free Speech in the 1990s, and Free Speech Lost.” Although meant to foster a climate of acceptance and tolerance for difference and to explicitly protect ethnic and racial minorities from mistreatment and harassment, speech codes have become so unwieldy and so broad that they can be applied to shut down almost any speech which an administrator, professor, or staff member finds distasteful or disagrees with in any way. Indeed F.I.R.E views speech codes as such a significant threat to free speech that they have a regular speech code of the month section on their official website, in which speech codes from universities and colleges across the nation are examined for their potentially chilling effect upon campus expression. And indeed, many speech codes seem to be written by incompetent bureaucrats who know little of the law and even less about human nature.

California State University, Chico, for instance, had a speech code which considered the “continual use of generic masculine terms such as to refer to people of both sexes” as sexual harassment. According to this policy any professor who followed standard English language pronoun usage before, say 1990, could be charged with sexual harassment and potentially fired. I doubt I need to explain how such a broad definition of harassment could be abused by administrators or other faculty who might be eager to get rid of a politically problematic or particularly irksome colleague. Another laughable example of an overreaching speech code policy was at Drexel University, which, until F.I.R.E. intervened, had a harassment policy that included in its definition of harassment “inappropriately directed laughter.” The very idea of punishing someone for laughter is bad enough, but how exactly does one define “inappropriate” in this sentence, and who decides. People laugh for any number of reasons, sometimes simply because they feel uncomfortable. So what real value is there in having such an ill-written policy? The answer is that such broad policies create a climate of obedience and false deference on campuses and provide administrators with a quick and easy way to punish students for speech or actions which it dislikes or wants to suppress.

One of the most egregious examples of universities using speech codes as a “smokescreen” to selectively punish faculty members is the case of Brandeis Professor Donald Hindley, who was charged with discrimination and harassment after explaining to students in his Latin American Politics course the origins of the word “wetback.” Even though he was clearly opposed to the use of such epithets and says he was merely explaining the origins of the insult, the administration found him guilty of harassment without a hearing, placed an administrative monitor in his classroom, and “required Hindley to attend ‘anti-discrimination training.’” As it happens, Lukianoff reports that Hindley was also an outspoken critic of Israeli policy on a campus with a large Jewish population. It seems clear to this reader, at least, that his selective punishment and the bizarre attempts of the administration to shame and embarrass him in front of his own students may have been an attempt to force him to retire or leave.

As these cases and the others that Lukianoff cites make clear, college administrators have chosen to put the right not be offended above the right to speak. For Lukianoff, however, and I tend to agree here, feeling uncomfortable and being offended are part of the challenge of living in a pluralistic society. College campuses are precisely the places where people should sometimes be made to feel uncomfortable and to have their most cherished beliefs questioned. As Lukianoff says, “if you make it through four years of college without having your deepest beliefs challenged, you should ask for your money back.” Unfortunately many college administrators and growing numbers of students disagree.  The irony of speech codes is that while they purport to defend plurality and multiculturalism, they in fact enforce homogeneity through prohibiting differences of opinion on issues as diverse and compelling as religious belief and political ideology. Indeed, many speech codes include prohibitions against insulting or making fun of others’ political beliefs. If these sorts of rules are taken seriously, all forms of satire would effectively be banned, and student newspaper editorial pages would become minefields.

Perhaps the most important and compelling contribution of Lukianoff’s book, however, is his critique of the growth of the administrative class and its relationship to campus censorship. As of 2005, there were on average more administrators on college campuses than there were full-time faculty members, a demographic shift that has been largely responsible for the exploding cost of higher education over the last two decades. But as Lukianoff argues, this administrative bloat is also responsible for the decline of free speech on American campuses. “The rise in cost is related to the decline in rights on campuses in important ways. Most importantly, the increase in tuition and overall cost is disproportionately funding an increase in both the cost and size of campus bureaucracy, and this expanding bureaucracy has primary responsibility for writing and enforcing speech codes, creating speech zones, and policing students’ lives.” In essence, students are paying more money for less freedom so that more administrators can take home fatter checks.

It’s true: college administrators are earning more than ever. With so much money at stake, they have a vested interest in squelching criticism and are keen on showing that they serve a legitimate function by the creation and promotion of campus regulations, many of which fly in the face of the First Amendment. From exorbitant salaries for campus presidents and deans, to extra-legal campus judiciaries, to the growth of Residence Life programs, which Lukianoff says have taken on the role of “morality police,” campuses are becoming intensely managed. Required, not to mention expensive and elaborate, orientation programs frequently indoctrinate students into a program of politically correct behavior while aggressively punishing those who question or resist. The cost for such management is being passed onto the students. Worst of all, rather than being outraged by this waste and abuse of power, students at many colleges seem happy to pay for the privilege of sanitized speech environments. In fact, it seems that college administrations have managed to convince many students that such regulations are in their best interest, and as Lukianoff makes clear again and again throughout the book, it appears that America’s college students have embraced the idea of censorship.  From speech codes that prohibit certain words and inhibit debate, to required sensitivity training and bullying and cyber-bullying regulations, college students in America have become embarrassingly quiescent.

This is all the more reason why Lukianoff’s criticism of those few students who do take direct action, even when it interferes, however temporarily, with the free speech of another can sometimes be so unnerving.  To be fair, Lukianoff is a First Amendment lawyer, and as such he holds an unwavering view of the sanctity of the rights the First Amendment guarantees. It’s easy to agree with Lukianoff that we do not have the privilege of picking and choosing when to respect and when not to respect the ideal of free speech. As a profession and as a nation, we must internalize a deep and abiding respect for the freedom of speech if we want to produce strong-willed, intelligent, and critical thinkers and if we are going to work together to solve the problems that plague our society. However, there are times when disrupting the status quo, when making havoc, when confronting and condemning those who are responsible for crimes much greater than violating free speech, becomes necessary, especially by those who have few other forums to adequately express their concerns. Those council members who threatened to withhold funds for Brooklyn College were wrong to abuse their power to limit the speech of those they disagree with about an issue that does not even immediately affect them. Their actions were calculated attempts to improve their political image among a politically powerful NYC constituent, nothing more. However, although I find Dov Hikind to be an irrepressible scumbag, had he felt sufficiently outraged and truly convinced that two milquetoast academics like Butler and Barghouti were really an existential threat to the greater good or the existence of Israel, if he would have placed his body on the line in an act of civil disobedience risking arrest by disrupting the talk, I would have respected his attempt. That’s what committed people sometimes do. Hikind, however, is a coward. He would prefer to have others silence those who disagree with him. But a dedicated group of students who disrupt or shut down a hateful or criminal speaker are not cowards; they have chosen to break the rules and suffer the consequences.

The First Amendment, just like campus speech codes and orientation programs, should not be a limit to political action. There are times when other actions have to be taken. Lukianoff recounts many instances of students infringing upon the speech of others by stealing newspapers, tearing down posters and flyers and disrupting speeches, and in almost all of those cases it is difficult not to agree with his condemnation, since they mostly concern petty issues of personal reputations being hurt or heavy handed authoritarian attempts to silence opposition. But what about the student who stands up and interrupts a speech by Dick Cheney, or the group of students who storm a Board of Trustees meeting with chains and padlocks, effectively shutting down a vote to raise tuition on working class students? And what about the determined group of students who take over the library or an administrative building to protest the abuses of a corrupt college president, taking away the right of the other students to use the space? It’s easy from an idealistic perspective to tell such students that they should respect the First Amendment rights of the administration or board members to speak and vote on issues that directly hurt them, but for those who have little power, the blessing of speech is cold comfort. This is the dilemma we face, and in this respect the issue of the freedom of speech on campus is not nearly as cut-and-dried as Lukianoff would like us to believe. For where there is a great inequality of power, some people inevitably have more speech than others.

Such minor criticisms, however, should not detract from the fact that Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty is an important contribution to the discussion of free speech and American culture and is a welcome addition to the growing body of works exposing the erosion of intellectual life at America’s universities and colleges.



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