Let's Talk About Free Speech on Campus

Glenn Ricketts

That’s what Greg Lukianoff and Bob Shibley, president and vice president of FIRE, are inviting us to do in this piece at Minding the Campus. 

I hope there’ll be a huge and robust response to the invitation since, as the authors emphasize, there’s an ever-expanding list of topics that you can’t talk about on campus.  Heaven forefend that a designated victim group might take offense at some offhand comment, gesture, announcement or cookie sale for which campus “safe climate” enforcers storm in with the US Cavalry.  See Greg’s recent book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate  for a more detailed account of the Orwellian chill that so widely envelopes the contemporary American academy.

For me personally, one of the most daunting aspects of campus censorship is the kind that goes on unobserved inside individual classrooms.  That’s because unless you’re a student or a fly on the wall, you might not think that anything’s amiss.  I’m all in favor of mounting legal challenges to campus speech and “climate’ codes, as FIRE continues to do with such success.  But classroom censorship is something like carbon monoxide:  deadly, but almost impossible to detect.  With a speech code, at least there’s something tangible in writing that you can go after..

In my own experience, I’ve been struck by comments from individual students that there are certain topics – say, race relations, same-sex marriage, sexual assault – on which one simply knows that it’s better to clam up if you don’t happen to agree with the instructor, even if discussion is invited.  And I’m not talking here about anguished disclosures whispered to me with my office door closed.  I’ve usually learned these things through rather offhand remarks tangential to conversations on routine instructor/student topics.  Of course, such students also know that it would be pointless to complain to administrators or department chairs who are ideologically on the same page and fully committed to “openness.”  They’re not about to abridge any instructor’s academic freedom, now are they?  You see what I mean.

Anyway, this is a task that anyone who values real academic freedom and genuine freedom of speech on campus simply can’t walk away from:  the stakes are high and getting higher every day.  Many thanks to Greg and Bob for spurring us on.

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