Teaching the Wrong Lessons

On September 13, 2011, Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO), was in Madison to reveal the findings of his organization’s study of racial preferences in admissions at the University of Wisconsin. He was speaking at a hotel close to campus when a mob of students burst into the room, shouting him down and harassing him as he left the building. 

And how did that mob come into being? It had been organized by two campus administrators who wanted to let Clegg know how much the university disapproved of his investigation into and criticism of UW’s “diversity” policy.

(University of Wisconsin professor W. Lee Hansen discusses that event and the school’s failure to take any action against the perpetrators in this Badger Herald piece.)

Instead of confronting ideas with other ideas, those administrators and their compliant students chose physical retaliation. That is shocking to many Americans, who still believe that colleges and universities should be dedicated to the rational pursuit of truth and should never sanction atavistic, anti-intellectual ways of responding to those with whom you disagree.

The mob action at UW is just one of many appalling cases discussed in Greg Lukianoff’s new book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. Lukianoff is the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and in his years of working for that organization, has seen a huge number of campus cases revolving around freedom of speech issues.

He is dismayed that colleges and universities—the places where thought, speech, and debate should be the most free—are turning into places where intolerance reigns. “On college campuses today,” Lukianoff writes, “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….”

In short, Americans are being taught some extremely bad lessons in college. What they’re learning is that the way to deal with opposing ideas is to forcibly attack the person who speaks or writes them. 

More and more, coercion rather than logic is becoming the coin of the higher education realm. Say something that someone else on campus (a student, a faculty member, or an administrator) finds offensive or critical and you may well face nasty consequences. So instead of thinking about formulating good arguments on controversial matters, people increasingly avoid trouble by remaining quiet.

The book is built on a rock-solid philosophical base. Lukianoff describes himself as a liberal Democrat, but he accepts the Jeffersonian idea that we must defend free speech even if we don’t agree with its content. Most, but not all of the incidents Lukianoff writes about involve attacks on the freedom of conservatives and Christians. He defends their rights not because he agrees with them, but because he understands that free speech will only survive if it gets an unwavering, principled defense.

Lukianoff shows that the disrespect for free speech starts long before students get to college. Throughout much of our K-12 system, they are taught that it’s more important not to offend anyone than it is to argue your opinions. Furthermore, students no longer learn much about the protection our institutions have historically given to free speech and many therefore often enter college without any idea of the important role free speech plays in progress.

College used to counteract such thinking, but students now find themselves facing a minefield when they speak or write. They encounter speech codes that vaguely admonish them not to speak in a way that might be “hurtful” to others and “harassment” policies that are easily turned from shields against objectively harmful conduct into swords that can be used to smite them for having spoken in a way someone feels is offensive.

Students find professors who demand that they accept controversial assumptions as unquestionable truth, and professors who make assignments for political action that some disagree with.

They see faculty members penalized for saying forbidden things, no matter how innocently.

They see peaceful protests by students halted by administrative decrees that one might expect in a totalitarian regime, but not in America. They also see disruptive protests such as at the University of Wisconsin that elicit no official disapproval.

Unlearning Liberty is chock full of cases demonstrating how hostile colleges can be toward free speech and dissent from orthodoxy. Some of them are almost unbelievable.

Consider, for example, the reaction when Brandeis University professor Don Hindley, while teaching a course on Latin American politics, used the term “wetbacks.” He explained to his students that the word was slang for Mexican immigrants, deriving from the fact that some of them had gotten wet while crossing the Rio Grande.  Never mind that Hindley was not using “wetbacks” in a pejorative way—he was charged with a violation of the university’s nondiscrimination and harassment policy. 

His efforts at showing that he was simply explaining a term and had no intention of harassing or offending any student were futile. Hindley was told that he would have to attend “anti-discrimination training” sessions and that the school would monitor his courses to ensure that he had learned not to “engage in inappropriate, racial and discriminatory conduct.”

FIRE, the ACLU, and many Brandeis students and faculty members fought vigorously against this absurd treatment of a highly-regarded professor, but the administration never retreated from its denunciation of Professor Hindley as a “harasser.”

Think that was outrageous? Here’s a case that might top it.

In 2005, Chris Lee, a black student at Washington State, decided to put on a musical that, in the tradition of South Park, would offend many people in the community. He came up with a production he called The Passion of the Musical, a parody of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. Lee thought he’d produce some laughs by so obviously going overboard in political incorrectness.

Chris got official permission to put on his musical and clearly warned that it was “offensive or inflammatory to all audiences.” So you might think that easily offended people would simply stay away.

Not so. In fact, the university’s administration even organized a protest against it, holding a training session on disrupting the production and even buying tickets for the students who wanted to be offended. When the time came, the irate students managed to stop the play and threatened the performers, including Lee.

Subsequently, the president of Washington State, V. Lane Rawlins, actually said that the students in the disruptive mob had “exercised their free speech rights in a responsible manner by letting the writer know exactly how they felt.”

When the president of a major university congratulates students for letting their hurt feelings lead to mob action against a comedy, we are in serious trouble.

Among America’s problems is that we have become a hyper-partisan country where many people act more like members of primitive tribes, ready to take up clubs and fight over any little thing, than mature, rational individuals.

Lukianoff is right on target when he says that colleges should be part of the solution to that problem by teaching students good intellectual habits. Instead, as his book amply documents, they’re making the problem much worse by modeling authoritarian, anti-rational hostility to free speech. Can anything be done?

FIRE can and does battle against the symptoms of the disease highlighted here, but a cure would require higher education leaders who are committed to free speech and will take swift action against all those “power trippers” on campus who want to silence ideas they don’t like.  When governing boards are looking for leaders, an unqualified commitment to free speech should be a litmus test.