The Spirit of Free Expression and Its Erosion on Campus

If a free and just society depends on a diversity of ideas, should we be concerned about the cultural shift at universities?

by Michael Tolhurst

The issue of free speech on campus has a long history beyond today’s disinvitation of speakers and shouting down of professors. In the 1960s, protests at the University of California, Berkeley, were in favor of free speech and against universities playing the role of parent. The issue rose again to prominence in the late 1980s and 1990s, when a series of books from figures as diverse as Jonathan Rauch, Alan Charles Kors, and Allan Bloom noted how the prioritization of political correctness could pose a threat to open inquiry.

In Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, Greg Lukianoff discusses the most recent incarnations of free speech concerns on campus and finds that censorship is alive and well at colleges and universities across America.

Lukianoff’s position as president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-profit organization committed to protecting the free speech rights of students on college campuses, has provided him with a plethora of censorship-related stories. Throughout the book, he identifies several recurring causes of reduced freedom of expression on campus, including speech codes (rules that either implicitly or explicitly restrict speech) and free speech zones (restrictions on where students can freely and spontaneously assemble). One example Lukianoff provides shows the concept of free speech zones taken to a ridiculous extreme: Texas Tech University instituted a “Free Speech Gazebo” (since removed), which restricted free expression to a small gazebo that required advance booking.

Even though speech codes are often adopted to remedy particular ills (e.g., to ensure that students from minority groups feel welcome), the cost to free expression can be significant. Particularly if one considers, as Lukianoff does, that administrators are often too eager to use speech codes to silence dissent that criticizes their actions. Combine this with the often-Orwellian world of the campus disciplinary system, which frequently lacks any sort of due process, and one arrives at a state of affairs much worse than the problem the code was meant to address. As these proceedings are opaque and carry significant consequences — ranging from suspension to expulsion — the potential harm to a student’s future is severe.

Another danger is the merging of a culture that promotes diversity at all costs with an ever-expanding campus bureaucracy. This has resulted in residence life programs — curricula taught by campus administrators in residence and dining halls — that seek to inculcate certain norms, but not in a fashion that fosters open debate. The demand for equality has also led some campuses to require that student groups be open to all — even to those whose beliefs are fundamentally at odds with the group’s purpose. This undermines students’ ability to freely associate within the civil society that is a campus community.

Most troubling for Lukianoff is the increasing tendency of students to attempt to silence each other. Much of FIRE’s work, Lukianoff notes, has been defending students from the inept or malicious overreach of campus officials; but more recently, students themselves have been taking steps to restrict speech. This can take the form of trashing an entire issue of the campus newspaper or disinviting (or otherwise disrupting) campus speakers. Such incidents point toward a worrying cultural shift on campuses.

Defending Free Speech Transcends Ideological Divides

Lukianoff’s book is comparable to another famous work on campus culture that came out a generation ago, Allan Bloom’s 1987 Closing of the American Mind. Bloom’s work has long served as the comprehensive philosophical critique of the modern university, particularly on the right. (Charles Koch’s recent op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, wherein he discussed how campus censorship can have larger implications for social and technological progress, even references the work in its title.)

Unlike Lukianoff, who only minimally speculates about the underlying cultural drivers of censorship, Bloom attempted to provide a broad explanation for the ills of the modern university. However, Bloom’s large strokes belie his personal prejudices. For example, Bloom famously (or infamously) held that rock music, as well as the malign influence of particular historical thinkers (such as Friedrich Nietzsche), were partially to blame for the decline of American culture.

Lukianoff’s book is much better than Bloom’s in that it is informed by a broad and varied experience with actual students on actual campuses. Lukianoff does not make grand claims about campus culture beyond the evidence he has available. This includes Lukianoff’s reluctance to cast blame on any single group and his underlying sympathy for students. While he acknowledges that in recent years those on the left have increasingly been the ones suppressing speech on campus, Lukianoff cautions against drawing too strong a conclusion from this fact.

In the past, left-leaning students and professors helped to broaden the diversity of views held on campuses and promoted free speech. Any attempt to portray the left as the primary enemy of free expression ignores the complicated history of campus censorship, in which friends and foes of free speech can be found on all sides of the ideological spectrum. At the same time that Berkeley students were protesting in favor of free speech, National Review’s Willmoore Kendall had this to say: “The classic attempt to defend freedom of speech as a compelling principle, applicable to all communities, that is, Mill’s famous Essay on Liberty, is a piece of bad political philosophy, and one that has done great harm.” However, today the same magazine routinely embraces the cause of free speech.

Campus Censorship’s Larger Implications

Unlearning Liberty illustrates the importance of, as well as the threats facing, free speech on campus. College campuses, which serve to educate young adults at a formative period in their lives, should seek to instill a spirit of critical inquiry, not to simply indoctrinate students into believing the “correct” views as understood by partisans of particular ideological camps.

This is an important concern for those who value freedom and reject authoritarian rule. Throughout history, the freedom to speak and engage in critical debate has been central to all political, cultural, and scientific progress. The fact that this heritage might be lost is of grave concern.

Furthermore, what happens on campus will not stay on campus. As students graduate, they will move on to live and work in the larger society. Habits of mind formed at the university will continue to inform how graduates grapple with the pressing issues of the day. The “coddling of the American mind,” as Lukianoff noted in a 2015 Atlantic article co-authored with psychologist Jonathan Haidt, does a disservice to students both in terms of their education and their mental health.

Ultimately, there are two different sets of habits a university can attempt to impart on its students: One leads to critical inquiry and the ability to thoughtfully question the status quo and think deeply about complicated matters; the other, which universities currently seem more and more in the business of providing, limits free thought and encourages conformity.