Colleges and Universities

Eight misconceptions about free speech on campus

June 30, 2016  • Greg Lukianoff

Greg Lukianoff is the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). He’s the author of ‘Unlearning Liberty’ and ‘Freedom from Speech’, and executive producer of the forthcoming film ‘Can We Take A Joke?’. We asked Greg to run down some common misconceptions about speech on campus before joining us at Aspen Ideas.

I’ve spent the last 15 years fighting threats to free speech on campus at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). While many people may have heard of cases FIRE has been involved in, most don’t understand the full extent of campus censorship, so I want to address the eight most common misconceptions I encounter.

“There aren’t any threats to free speech on campus! Campuses are the paragons of freedom of speech.”

Given that this year, horror stories of campus censorship have flooded mainstream media, from articles in practically every major newspaper in the country to the covers of The Atlantic, Newsweek, and The Economist, I don’t hear this comment as often anymore. But when I do, I explain how I’ve seen thousands of absurd abuses of free speech on campus. Some of the more dramatic examples include a student getting evicted from his dorm for making a “Freshman 15” joke, students on countless campuses being forbidden from protesting outside of tiny “free speech zones” that require advance permission to use, and a student being expelled for protesting the proposed construction of campus parking garages.

“Sure, campus speech codes were a problem in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but they’re all gone.”

People can be forgiven for thinking this, since the rise of “politically correct” campus speech codes in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was met with public condemnation and a series of clear legal defeats. The assumption was that speech codes, as Robert O’Neil put it, “were given a decent burial.” Surprisingly, the number of campus speech codes actually increased from the ‘90s all the way up to 2006, when FIRE completed our first comprehensive survey of speech codes. We found that 75 percent of campuses maintained so-called red light speech codes, which are laughably restrictive policies that would never withstand First Amendment scrutiny. Examples include the famous policy at the University of Connecticut (and later Drexel University) that banned “inappropriately directed laughter,” and a policy at Jacksonville State University that banned offending anyone on university-owned or operated property. After at least 47 lawsuits, the number of campuses with red light speech codes has dropped below 50 percent, but that progress could quickly be undone by new demands from students and policies from the U.S. Department of Education.

“Okay, things may not be perfect for free speech on campus, but it’s only in the past few years that it has become an issue.” 

I specialized in First Amendment law at Stanford Law School, taking every First Amendment class offered, completing six credits on censorship during the Tudor dynasty, and interning with the ACLU of Northern California. Despite all of this, when I started at FIRE in 2001, I was shocked by how easy it is to get in trouble for what you say on the modern college campus.

FIRE is happy to see that campus threats to free speech are finally making news, but we wonder where everyone has been for the past 17 years (we were founded in 1999). The reason the public is only recently hearing more about campus free speech is because today students are the ones demanding censorship. This comes in the form of speech codes, the “disinvitation” of speakers, or microaggression policing programs that sanction even unintentional slights. For most of my career, the main threat to campus free speech was administrative overreach.

“The problems on campus are all about political correctness.”

I’m not a big fan of the term “political correctness.” It means very different things depending on where you stand on the political spectrum. While many FIRE cases deal with “politically correct” censorship no matter how you define it, an awful lot of them don’t. Take one of our biggest cases in the past year: The president of Mount St. Mary’s University attempted to fire two professors for criticizing his plan to use allegedly confidential student survey responses to weed out low-performing students. That case, like many others we deal with, demonstrates the timeless urge of those with power to punish those who criticize them.

“But the censorship on campus is done with the best intentions.”

Censorship is not okay even if it’s done with a pure heart. Is there anything noble about a leader firing subordinates for voicing criticism, or telling protesters that they have to restrict themselves to tiny Orwellian free speech zones? Even when administrators cite high-minded reasons for punishing a student or professor, the decision usually arises from mixed motives.

“But speech codes are only directed at banning hate speech.”

Many students believe that “hate speech” is a category of speech that is unprotected under the First Amendment. This is false. But even if you did try to define “hate speech,” as some European countries have, virtually none of the cases I’ve seen in 15 years involve speech that falls under even these broad definitions. In fact, I’ve seen a number of cases in which administrators censored expression that was anti-racist. For example, administrators at the University of Iowa censored a piece by Turkish artist Serhat Tanyolacar because it provocatively drew attention to racism in both America’s past and present.

“Tenured professors have nothing to worry about.”

Perhaps the biggest trend I noticed in the 2015-2016 school year is how many cases involved attempts to expel or discipline tenured professors. While tenure usually provides professors with strong protections, this year tenured professors faced sanctions in cases at Marquette University, Northwestern University, Louisiana State University, and more.

“Free speech on campus is a conservative issue.”

As someone who thinks of himself as a political liberal, the fact that I get this assertion so often drives me nuts. Yes, both professors and administrators tend to lean to the left, but university censorship affects everyone on campus, regardless of their politics. And even if it did only affect conservatives, I would hope that my fellow liberals would fight it anyway. In the past few years, we’ve seen a number of well-known liberals speak out against campus censorship. But so far, support for fighting this censorship still skews rightward. If we are really serious about fixing the state of discourse on campus, it will require a grand alliance of people across the political spectrum.