Closed mouths, closed minds

Thursday December 20, 2012

Audrey Pietrucha

What happens to a society when the free expression of ideas is curtailed and debate is strongly discouraged? Surprisingly, experiments in exactly this are conducted daily on American colleges and university campuses. The results are important because their impact is felt far beyond the halls of academia. In Vermont, especially, the lack of respect for different viewpoints and diverse ideas is increasingly apparent.

Greg Lukianoff's new book, "Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the end of American Debate" is an important study of the chilling effect speech codes and other anti-free expression constructs are having on students, faculty and American society. As president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, FIRE, Lukianoff spends his days delving into complaints, dissecting speech codes and initiating legal action to halt violations of students' First Amendment rights.

At a recent book forum Lukianoff, who specializes in first amendment law and describes himself as a moderate Democrat, said he was unprepared for the extent of abuses he has encountered in his eleven years with FIRE. And while attempts to suppress speech have always come from both ends of the political spectrum, the left-ward tilt on most campuses means libertarian and conservative religious and political thought are increasingly disallowed in the academic arena of ideas.

Lukianoff began his remarks by reciting the disturbing findings of a 2010 survey conducted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. Twenty-four hundred students and 9,000 campus employees were asked the questions "Is it safe to hold unpopular opinions on this campus?" Only 35 percent of the students answered the question affirmatively, with more optimistic (or naïve) first-year students saying "yes" 40 percent of the time and more experienced (or jaded) fourth-year students registering at only 30 percent. Most troubling of all, only 17 percent faculty members, who should know the school at which they work best, felt it was safe to hold an unpopular opinions. In Lukianoff's experience, students have cause to worry. He detailed cases of students who were kicked out of schools and/or dorms because of mild protests against pet administration projects or jokes regarded as hurtful or offensive. Campus speech codes, one of which the FIRE website hires each month, rely on ambiguous and subjective language which can be twisted to make just about any remark fit. The lack of debate and discussion professors now note in their classrooms is due to a lack of courage rather than a lack of knowledge or opinion. Those whose ideas conflict with the powers-that-be have learned to keep it to themselves and it is hard to blame them when the costs of disagreement run so high. Just a few students need to feel the force of administrative muscle to keep the rest in line.

The First Amendment is not needed to protect popular speech; rather, it was explicitly written to defend minority ideas and dissent. The law, Lukianoff said, is strong in protection of offensive and challenging speech but that does not prevent colleges from leveling frivolous charges and dispensing with due process in cases against students. That universities almost always lose these cases does not, unfortunately, encourage a more circumspect approach to speech suppression. Neither does it often embolden administrative staff, faculty or even other students to speak out against an action that they know is unconstitutional. Apathy, Lukianoff said, is the order of the day. Worse than that, censorship is beginning to be accepted as normal, even virtuous. Today's college students, Lukianoff said, are far too trusting of authority and seem ready to assume similar authoritarian postures when it comes to differences of opinion. College newspaper runs are destroyed regularly when they contain articles some find offensive, insulting or damaging. Some of the free speech walls that have been erected on campuses, where Lukianoff said students share many humorous, wise and interesting thoughts, are sometimes torn down by other students. The designated free-speech zones on some campuses are thought to be acceptable as long as the rules governing them are enforced impartially. Even students who claim to be aware of civil liberties issue seem unaware that having to obtain permission from a governing authority to engage in free speech is itself a violation of the spirit of the First Amendment. It is also antithetical to the academic ideal of respectful and honest debate and discussion.

The effects of these policies are already felt in society at large. At a time when more Americans that ever hold college degrees our conversations are remarkably void of intellectual and interesting content. Critical thinking skills have declined and society is polarized. People who hold views contrary to those more widely-accepted, or at least more loudly proclaimed, confine their discussions to groups of like-minded individuals rather than risk the insults and attacks that often come in conversation with those who hold differing views. The ethic of seeking out the intelligent person with whom you disagree has been replaced by the intellectually-lazy tactic of assigning motives to people we don't even know and calling them names.

This is a real concern in Vermont, where politics lean so heavily left that people with more centrist views have learned to self-censor. Our little state is quickly becoming what Lukianoff described as a John Stuart Mill nightmare, a place where people believe they are right about everything without having actually considered alternative ideas. A society where ideas cease be explored and challenged stagnates. When mouths are closed, minds are closed also.

Audrey Pietrucha is a member of the executive board of Vermonters for Liberty. She can be reached at


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