As you would expect from the president of FIRE, Unlearning Liberty teems with detailed examples of campus censorship. There’s Texas Southern University’s ban on ‘inappropriate jokes’ that cause ‘physical or emotional harm’; there’s Northeastern University’s prohibition on email messages that ‘in the sole judgement of the university’ are ‘annoying’ or ‘offensive’. There’s the absurd case of a mature student at Indiana Uni-Purdue ‘found guilty of racial harassment’… for reading a history book about the defeat of the Ku Klux Klan. And there are countless more from the annals of draconian farce that are FIRE’s case files. Indeed, just how inessential the idea of free and open debate has become to the academy is revealed by the fact that many American universities have created specific so-called free-speech zones, complete with designated opening hours and booking systems. Freedom of thought is no longer installed at the centre of the academy; it’s been relegated to the margins.
It is not just the students who are trained to believe that there are things of which they must never speak; faculty members are, too. In 2005, for instance, Harvard president Larry Summers gave a speech in which he speculated that, at the highest end of the IQ spectrum, men might be genetically predisposed towards being cleverer than women. He was forced to resign. ‘If the president of Harvard can’t start a meaty, thought-provoking, challenging discussion’, notes Lukianoff, ‘who on earth can?’ The result of three decades’ worth of campus censorship, from the politically correct speech codes of the 1980s and 1990s to the anti-harassment dictata of today, has been chilling. Lukianoff tells me of a recent survey conducted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities: ‘Out of 24,000 students who were asked the question, “Is it safe to hold unpopular positions on campus?”, only 35 per cent of students strongly agreed. But, when broken down, the stat indicates something even worse. Forty per cent of freshmen strongly agreed, but only 30 per cent of seniors.’ In other words, students unlearn freedom of speech during their studies. ‘Even worse, only 16 per cent of university faculty strongly agreed with this statement. It’s not even a particularly strong statement, and if we’ve reached a point where only 16 per cent of faculty strongly agree with it, then we’re doing something wrong.’
How has this happened?