Needless to say, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate will strike close to home for many Wesleyan students. This book, written by Greg Lukianoff and published in 2012, explores the evolution of free speech rights on college campuses and unveils what Lukianoff perceives as a rise of censorship that has swept the nations institutes of highereducation.
Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), writes articles regularly on free speech and education. His work at FIRE served as the foundation for Unlearning Liberty; the organizations mission is to defend free speech, religious liberty, and due-process rights across campuses. FIREs cases are usually submitted by students, and are handled by FIRE staff intervention or, when necessary, litigated with FIREs LegalNetwork.
Lukianoff prefaces his book with a note on the political dynamics surrounding campus censorship. He writes that although he considers himself liberal and that his mission to defend student and faculty speech rights is consistent with this view, he is often vilified as an evil conservative. This is because, he says, much of the speech FIRE works to defend is advocating conservative positions; on college campuses, this speech tends to face morescrutiny.
Unlearning Liberty is a smooth read, with an emphasis on case studies and a smattering of political philosophy. Lukianoff cites John Stuart Mill, focusing on his argument that dissenting voices need to be protected not only because there is some possibility they could be right, but also because the discussion inspired by dissent can strengthen and clarify everyonesviews.
Unfortunately, Lukianoff argues, the ability to present dissenting opinions is being eroded. One focus of the book is the adoption of speech codes by many universities. These are often vague and unenforceable, for example including a complete prohibition of hurtful or offensive speech. Not only is speech that falls under these categories integral to free thought and free discussion, but these codes are also often enforced arbitrarily by administrations to silence speech they find personallyobjectionable.
Lukianoff also makes the point that people have lost the drive to protect their own Constitutional rights, accepting certain limitations without really questioning them. He attributes this to dynamics rooted in elementary and high schools, where rules are structured to emphasize protection of feelings and the image of the administrations rather than on protection of student rights. As a result, he adds, apathy abounds as people internalize a newnorm.
The book, while getting perhaps a bit repetitive with its reliance on case studies that are all similar in nature, definitely provides readers with plenty of anecdotes with which they can pepper their conversations. For example, readers learn that in 2006, Drexel Universitys speech code included a ban on inconsiderate jokes and inappropriately directed laughter. At Indiana UniversityPurdue University Indianapolis, a janitor was threatened with disciplinary action on the grounds of racial harassment for openly reading a historical account of the Ku Klux Klan while on hisbreak.
I would recommend this book to any Wesleyan student who is looking to feel slightly uncomfortable. In addition to no-brainers such as the Ku Klux Klan anecdote, Lukianoff defends, or at least entertains, situations that many would find repugnant, such as fat-shaming dorm posters and exclusionary religiousgroups.
It seems very much that the book is directed at an audience that would naturally disagree with many of its conclusions. It aggressively forces readers to consider difficult questions. At what point does expressing a view become the equivalent of censoring another one? Where is the line drawn between insensitivity and harassment? Can preventing another persons free speech be defended on the grounds that you are expressing yourown?
Although the Wesleyan administration is nowhere near instituting free-speech corners (designated spots that are the only free-speech protected locations on campus), as has happened at several universities discussed in the book, it is interesting to consider the extent of our free speech rights, given the framework Lukianoff outlines. Another type of censorship, perhaps, comes from within the student body; often I have heard the complaint that as tolerant as our population claims to be, it is difficult to express unpopular views without coming underfire.
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Book Review: Unlearning Liberty