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Book Review: Unlearning Liberty

Review of Greg Lukianoff, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate (Encounter Books, 2012).
By Steve Macek, Speech Communication, North Central College

A student expelled for a Facebook post criticizing the construction of a new parking ramp at his college, a faculty member reported to a "threat assessment team" for posting a quote from a TV show on his office door, a campus Christian organization prevented from showing The Passion of the Christ at a meeting—these are just a few of the many attacks on free speech at institutions of higher education that Greg Lukianoff details in his new book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. Lukianoff is president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a libertarian-leaning organization known for combatting speech codes and defending the rights of religious and conservative groups at America's colleges and universities. Drawing on the hundreds of censorship and due processes cases that FIRE has handled since its founding in 1999, Lukianoff argues that free expression on college campuses is today being stifled by authoritarian student handbooks, Orwellian administrators, politically correct professors and dictatorial student governments. Moreover, he attempts to connect the institutionalized intolerance for dissent on campus to the alleged descent of our national political discourse into "a culture of smug certainty, partisanship, sound bites and polarizing überpundits."

Lukianoff organizes Unlearning Liberty as a guided tour through a "typical" college student's experiences of visiting prospective schools, going through Freshman orientation, attending the first day of class, strolling through the student activity fair and so on, showing how his hypothetical student's desires for self-expression and real debate are thwarted at every turn. While this approach to presenting his central argument is a bit hokey, the egregious violations of student rights highlighted along the way are anything but.

Not surprisingly, the strongest parts of the book are the ones that deal with FIRE's signature issues: campus speech codes that prohibit Constitutionally-protected expression, and the lack of due process in the administration of such codes. In his chapter on official regulations that restrict student speech, Lukianoff surveys dozens of colleges of all types and sizes that have rules banning everything from "embarrassing remarks" to "inconsiderate jokes" to "negative or offensive comments." One SUNY school, the College at Brockport, actually forbids "‘uses of Internet/email that harass, annoy or otherwise inconvenience others' including ‘offensive language and graphics (whether or not the receiver objects, since others may come in contact with it).'" Sweeping and ill-considered sexual and racial harassment policies are especially common, according to Lukianoff, and he offers some outrageous illustrations such as a Davidson College policy that bans "comments or inquiries about dating." While only a few schools have taken their policing of speech to such extremes, a 2012 FIRE study found that 65 percent of the top 392 colleges in the country have policies that "severely restrict speech protected by the First Amendment."

Perhaps as alarming as the speech codes themselves is the arbitrary and selective way they are enforced. As Lukianoff explains in his chapter on the "campus judiciary," university disciplinary committees typically operate in secrecy and as a result can "violate a student's due process rights in a rush to find them guilty." The examples he cites of institutions abusing students' due process rights are legion. One student at University of Akron was expelled for dealing drugs based on the testimony of a single informant even though a criminal court had earlier acquitted him of the charge. The administration at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis found another student guilty of racial harassment for reading a scholarly book about the Ku Klux Klan in public. At Michigan State, students have been required to attend—and pay for—mandatory student accountability seminars for petty offenses such as being rude to a dormitory receptionist or telling off an imperious administrator. One student at a community college in Mississippi was found guilty of "flagrant disrespect of any person" for swearing while complaining to another student about the grade he had received on an assignment.

Of special interest to AAUP members, Lukianoff also chronicles a number of cases in which faculty have been punished for extracurricular political remarks or for criticizing their institution's policies. For instance, he tells the story of SUNY-Fredonia professor of philosophy and newspaper columnist, Steven Kershnar, who was passed over for promotion to full professor because the president of his university felt Kershnar's columns "impugned the reputation of SUNY-Fredonia." Even more sobering, Lukianoff enumerates example after example of faculty members who got into trouble with their administrations for sending politically controversial messages over campus listservs, circulating petitions online or posting ideologically charged artwork on their doors.

Yet, as edifying as it is in places, Unlearning Liberty is not without its shortcomings. Lukianoff's cherry-picked examples appear designed to bolster the myth that college campus are hotbeds of unthinking liberal orthodoxy and "political correctness run amok," a phrase that recurs a number of times throughout the book. He smears all efforts on the part of colleges and universities to promote awareness of racism, sexism and other forms of oppression as coercive or as instances of heavy-handed liberal indoctrination, even though participation in such programs is rarely mandatory. For instance, he impugns the "tunnel of oppression" displays that have sprung up at schools around the country by implying that students are forced to view them when in fact at most institutions viewing such displays is purely voluntary. Similarly, he makes much of the fact that teachers at two different Social Work programs required students to lobby state legislators for progressive causes; while forcing students to engage in partisan advocacy is certainly an affront to their rights, Lukianoff offers no evidence that these two isolated instances constitute anything approaching a trend.

So fixated is Lukianoff on sustaining the illusion that "socially conservative opinions are the ones most likely to be stifled at college and universities today" that he overlooks or downplays a number of dramatic recent assaults on the campus left, assaults often perpetrated by right-wingers and their allies in the national security apparatus. While he rightly condemns University of Colorado's politically motivated investigation of Ward Churchill for his controversial essay on the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he fails to discuss the notorious persecution of Middle East Studies scholars with pro-Palestinian views like Norman Finkelstein (denied tenure at DePaul University) and Margo Ramlal-Nankoe (denied tenure at Ithaca College). He also overlooks the Republican Party's use of open records laws to harass University of Wisconsin history professor William Cronon for daring to criticize the GOP's effort to dismantle basic social programs and repeal collective bargaining rights. Lukianoff's relative lack of concern about the way law enforcement and campus security routinely infringe the civil liberties of progressive student groups is also revealing. He devotes just one line to the brutal, unprovoked pepper-spraying of Occupy Cal demonstrators at University of California-Davis. He is silent about the FBI's secret monitoring of peace activists at the University of Iowa. And he says nothing at all about the shocking revelation that the New York Police Department spied on Muslim Student Association chapters at Rutgers University, Yale, New York University and several other universities on the East Coast.

Lukianoff also completely ignores the wholesale repression of dissent at religious colleges and universities. Such institutions frequently require faculty to sign a "statement of faith" binding them to a fairly rigid set of religious beliefs. In 2006, Wheaton College in Illinois, which requires faculty to adhere to a variant of evangelical Protestantism, famously fired philosophy professor Joshua Hochschild for converting to Catholicism. In the same year, an adjunct philosophy instructor at Mormon-affiliated Brigham Young University was fired for publishing an op-ed that contradicted church dogma by urging the legalization of same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, students at religious colleges lack even most the basic free speech rights enjoyed by their counterparts at public or private secular institutions. The Reverend Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in 2009 de-recognized the campus chapter of the College Democrats on the grounds that the national Democratic Party espouses views at odds with the stated moral principles of the university. Though widely reported, the suppression of heterodox ideas at places like Wheaton, Liberty and BYU receives no mention at all in Unlearning Liberty.

But the most glaring omission in the book is that Lukianoff avoids any discussion of the threat to free speech and academic freedom posed by the so-called "Academic Bill of Rights," model legislation drafted by right-wing activist David Horowitz in 2004 to promote "intellectual diversity" in the higher education and to protect students from the alleged liberal bias of the professoriate. As written, the ABOR would have mandated hiring quotas for conservative faculty and political monitoring of course reading lists in the humanities and social sciences at public universities, severely curtailing academic freedom in the process. Versions of the ABOR were introduced into more than two dozen state legislatures and came perilously close to becoming law in Georgia and Pennsylvania. Yet FIRE never once spoke out publicly against the legislation. Indeed, Lukianoff's immediate predecessor as FIRE President, David French, during the debate over the ABOR, repeatedly made public comments about the "ideological monoculture" supposedly prevailing inside the ivory tower that echoed the spurious claims being made by Horowitz and his supporters. French also testified before and served as legal advisor to the Pennsylvania state legislature's McCarthyite investigation of academic freedom in that state, an investigation directly inspired by Horowitz and the ABOR movement. One FIRE Advisory Board member, Candace de Russy, used her position on the State University of New York Board of Trustees to push energetically for the adoption of Horowitz's proposal as official policy throughout the SUNY system.

Given the frenzy of media attention surrounding the ABOR during the period covered by Unlearning Liberty, and given the involvement of people associated closely with FIRE in the campaign for the proposed legislation, Lukianoff's silence about this shameful little episode in the recent history of American higher education smacks of bad faith, especially since the sole mention of Horowitz in the book is as the victim of heckling and abuse at the hands of rambunctious PC protestors. Of course, this silence is also perfectly understandable. Though Lukianoff is a liberal and a registered Democrat—as he never tires of telling his readers—the organization he heads up is largely funded by right wing donors like the Bradley Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation and the Castle Rock Foundation. FIRE's board is populated by an assortment of libertarian intellectuals and Republican business people. Even his publisher, Encounter Books, specializes in conservative authors such as William Kristol, Thomas Sowell and Roger Kimball. No doubt if Lukianoff's book had given the post-9/11 assault on the civil liberties of leftist professors and student activists the detailed attention it deserved, he'd currently be looking for a new job. Despite its obvious blind spots, Unlearning Liberty usefully underscores the way administrative abuses of power are eroding the open debate and free expression that ought to be the hallmark of all academic institutions. Though it tends to downplay the censorship endured by the left inside the post-9/11 university, the instances of campus censorship it does examine are serious enough. As such, the book deserves to be read by anyone concerned about the future of higher education in America.