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Unlearning Liberty - Interview with Greg Lukianoff of FIRE

Wed, February 22, 2012 4:00 PM | Ross Robinson

Greg Lukianoff, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education ("FIRE"), will be speaking at the Texas Aggie Bar Association Annual Conference on March 3.  His presentation is entitled Unlearning Liberty: The State of the First Amendment on Campus. 



Greg Lukianoff


The Texas Aggie Bar Association spoke with Greg recently about these issues.

Q:        What is FIRE?

A:        FIRE ( is a nonprofit educational foundation based in Philadelphia. FIRE's mission is to defend and sustain individual rights at America's colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience - the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity. FIRE protects the unprotected and educates the public about the threats to these rights on our campuses and about the means to preserve them.

Q:        Tell us about your background and how you ended up at FIRE.

A:        I have actually been with FIRE since 2001.  I came here by a fairly direct route.  I went to law school specifically to study First Amendment law.  It has been a passion of mine since I was young.  I was a student journalist.  If anything is going to make you realize how important freedom of speech is, it's being a journalist.  You see very quickly how powerful the desire to censor speech actually is.  Journalists learn that, regardless of the intention of a limitation on speech, it gets used against journalists almost as soon as it is available. 

I credit multiculturalism for my interest in freedom of speech because I have a Russian dad and a British mom.  I grew up in a neighborhood where people were from all over the place and nobody agreed on what was polite or what was honest or what was the right thing to say.  It was really brought home to me by living in a neighborhood where just about everybody had some kind of different background.

In a generally pluralistic society, free speech should be the rule.  If the price that you pay is occasional offense, that's a very small price to pay for the open flow of creative ideas.  The perfect rule is that nobody gets to be in charge of what people say.  Therefore, if you say something ignorant, you suffer the consequences socially.  As soon as you put a person in charge of freedom of speech, shock upon shock, they have a tendency just to shut down opinions they disagree with and to impose their own idea of propriety.  This is one of the reasons why it was so wise for the founding fathers to put freedom of speech as our very first amendment.

Q:        Please comment on the status of free speech on the university campus today and the topics you will address at the Texas Aggie Bar Association’s Annual Conference.

A:        Well, there’s a stark contrast between the law and what happens on campus.  In the law, the freedom of speech of college students is very strongly protected.  In practice, students suffer from speech codes and ridiculous punishments for their speech.  In many cases, it's hard to even figure out what people found offensive about the speech in the first place.  In some cases, you can understand why someone might not have liked the speech, but the idea that you could shut the speech down is just contrary to the law.

Freedom of speech on at least public college campuses very well-protected in the law.  At private universities, they have to promise freedom of speech in their policies and most states actually recognize that universities can at least, to some extent, be held accountable for those promises.  I'm working on a book right now called Unlearning Liberty that discusses these issues.

The premise of Unlearning Liberty it is that the kind of censorship I see on college campuses is so absurd and has been going on for such a long time that it's actually harming our entire country's ability, and even inclination, to talk through and debate issues.  Universities, partially because of things like speech codes and repressive ideas about freedom of speech, have actually been fostering the societal polarization we're experiencing that has caused people to clam up or associate with people who already agree with them if there is any risk of getting in trouble for having the wrong opinion.  This really damages the sophistication machine that a university is supposed to be.  I point out in the book about how, during my time at FIRE, I've seen students get in trouble for having the wrong opinion on virtually every single hot-button issue, for simply being critical of the university administration, and for things that it is hard to even figure out how they're offensive in the first place. 

A case I talk a lot about involved a student who was found guilty of racial harassment just for publicly reading a book.  We have a case that we've been fighting for years in which a student was kicked out of school for a collage criticizing the president of the university's pet project, which was a parking garage.  More recently, we had a student who was forbidden from graduation because he mildly criticized the university's handling of a tornado.  It was one of those things that was so mild that it's hard to even figure out how it could have been considered offensive.  As an example, there was a speech zone at Texas Tech University that was only a 20' wide gazebo for all 28,000 students to use.

This is precisely the opposite attitude you want to be cultivating for university students.  It's virtually impossible to make an environment completely safe from any sort of emotional abrasion from other people.  Besides, you don't really want that.  Moreover, it is very difficult to engage in a robust inquiry and question anything when students constantly have to walk on eggshells.

Q:        What are some of the results of this suppression of free speech we see on our college campuses?

A:        Our universities are reaping what they have sown.  If you want to have a meaningful discussion about issues, you have to actually make it so that people can engage in thought experimentation.  Even devil's advocacy is essential to coming up with good ideas.  Universities not only discourage that, but oftentimes actually punish students.  I’ve seen this repeatedly over the past 11 years.

Q:        Can you comment on the observation that, in many cases, the very administrative leaders in our universities today that are stifling free speech benefitted from the ability to exercise their own free-speech rights 30-40 years ago?

A:        That's something that Alan Charles Kors talks about in the Generational Swindle ( 

The idea is that the same generation that fought for free speech and benefitted from it is now in charge and has been cutting back on free speech like crazy. Just when their free speech battles had been won in favor of faculty and students, it was a very short time before universities started passing speech codes of their own based on entirely new theories. 

This is something I think students should feel really betrayed about. The problem is that students are not actually taught about this.  Students are not taught about their rights, which is bad enough.  But they also are not taught that their rights actually come from a deep and profound philosophy about the way we inch closer to the truth, the way we actually make new discoveries, and the way we foster creativity. 

Some of the best thinkers in human history have expanded on why open discourse and public exchange of ideas is ultimately just a win/win in every way, but when I talk to students today, I get the impression that they believe that as long as nice people are trying to shut down speech, it is OK.  Of course, what often ends up happening is that free speech is shut down merely because an administrator does not like what has been said or simply does not want to be bothered.

Q:        It almost seems as if the university has become more and more a tool for social engineering.  Could you comment on this assertion?

A:        That’s true.  The scariest example of social engineering, which I often talk about, is the University of Delaware program.  The University of Delaware program was an indoctrination program, for all 7,000 students at the University of Delaware, that included one-on-one sessions where students had to stand against one wall if they had the right opinions about social issues and another if they had the wrong ones. 

They had mandatory questionnaires students had to fill out about what races and sexes they would date with the goal of getting students to become more open to date other races and sexes.  It was an incredible invasion of privacy.  It came with a speech code as well.  It actually trained resident advisors to break up arguments on any topic when they heard them because that's not what they wanted going on in dormitories. 

The role of what the university should be is often very fundamentally misunderstood.  The University of Delaware program treated the university more like an old-school sort of seminary, where the idea is to put divine wisdom into somebody rather than to be an incredible dynamic environment in which everyone is involved in this grand conversation.  At many universities, there are certainly administrators who not only think that there is nothing that can be learned from students' freedom of speech, but ultimately believe that students need to be punished until they have been conditioned to spout the company line.

Q:        Do you have any suggestions for attorneys who are interesting in getting more involved with these issues?

A:        Sure.  First, we have a network of volunteer attorneys with whom we have worked with over the years to bring challenges to speech codes across the country.  Every single one of those cases has been successful.  The codes on many university campuses aren't anywhere close to constitutional.  At the Conference, I'll share a lot of examples.  I'll also briefly cover the case law, which has been uniformly on the side of freedom of speech on college campuses. 

By joining our volunteer attorney network, attorneys can be notified when we have a case come up or have a potential challenge to a speech code.  We also have a guide to freedom of speech on campuses, that was primarily written for students, that covers a lot of the basic cases.  The first-amendment area of law that we specialize in is pretty straightforward. 

Q:        What is your biggest challenge and what do you enjoy most about your work?

A:        One of my biggest challenges is fundraising.  I am constantly trying to make people understand that what's happening on campuses harms our entire society and convince them that even if they don't have kids in college, they should care about these issues. 

It's just undeniable that if you tinker too much with the marketplace of ideas, you are going to end up having worse ideas propagating.  Going out and trying to find people who understand how important this issue is so that they will donate to FIRE is a really big challenge of my job. 

The thing I enjoy the most is the writing.  It's shocking to me how few people know about these utterly absurd cases of censorship that occur on college campuses.  Today, it seems as if the press has just gotten used to the egregious cases of infringement of students’ free-speech rights, so they don’t get reported nearly as often now as in the past. At the same time, the actual process of trying to explain why this issue matters to the entire country is something that I truly love to do.

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