Sam Dumitriu interviews US campus free speech activist Greg Lukianoff on the fight to defend free speech on campus
Over the past year student unions across the country have banned, boycotted or no platformed everything from the nation’s biggest newspaper to the most popular song of the summer. Against this backdrop of campus censorship, I spoke to US activist Greg Lukianoff, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Lukianoff weighed in on the current controversy surrounding UK students’ unions – the banning of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines.
“Trying to eliminate a pop song because it might be interpreted as offensive is just entirely wrongheaded. It misunderstands the point of free speech and it misunderstands the point of art.
“If you want to know human nature, if you want to know something about the good and bad aspects of human nature, then look at art.”
Lukianoff sees banning Blurred Lines as not an isolated incident, but as part of a harmful trend within higher education that started in the 1980s.
“It is funny that there are these strains within society, and particularly within academia that wants to bleach out anything that can be construed as offensive. The University of Edinburgh Students’ Union probably thinks it is being extremely progressive and compassionate by engaging in censorship. But really to me, this seems like something straight out of the Victorian era.
“There are deep and beautiful works of art that are so much more offensive than Blurred Lines. If you’re going to be at all intellectually consistent, then you are going to have to get rid of an awful lot of the canon. If you’re going to say that anything that can be experienced as offensive should be banned. To me the banning of Blurred Lines shows we have reached an absurd level on college campuses.
“By banning a song that involves aggressiveness and sexuality you don’t address the problem. That’s one of the things that makes this so analogous to the Victorian age. There is an idea that you can get away from things that make you uncomfortable about human nature by sticking your head in the ground like an ostrich.
“In a pluralistic society, I think you start realising pretty quickly that free speech is a sensible rule. You suffer the consequences. People might not like you for what you say, but you cannot have a rule against saying it.
“It really got brought home to me in a very real way when I was an undergraduate in Washington DC. I was a student journalist, and if there’s one thing you learn as a student journalist even the best-intentioned regime for censorship will get turned against the press.”
History professor Alan Charles Kors and constitutional lawyer Harvey Silvergate founded FIRE in 1999. Its mission is to defend free speech, due process and freedom of conscience across America’s college campuses. They defend any student of any political persuasion, from socialist students in Alaska to college republicans in California. Yet, looking at their cases, it seems they defend one group more than the rest.
“People tend to censor opinions they disagree with and not so much opinions they agree with. Since universities tilt decidedly liberal, if you’re going to punish someone for what they say, for their ideas, it tends to be politically conservative ideas more often than not.”
While many of the students FIRE defends do lean to the right, you could hardly say the same about Lukianoff. The Wall Street Journal described him as, “a lifelong Democrat” and a “passionate believer” in gay marriage and abortion rights. But, many of the students FIRE defends do not seem political at all.
“There are cases where someone is criticising a parking garage or trying to talk about tuition on [their] campus. A lot of the censorship we see on campus is very old fashioned. Administrators do not like their policies and practices being criticised and they wildly overreact.”
Lukianoff points to a case at Oswego, which is part of the State University of New York system.
“Oswego was very proud of its hockey team. An Australian student journalist, as part of a class, wrote to other university hockey coaches to do a profile about the schools hockey coach. At the end of his letters to other coaches he put a line saying, ‘Don’t feel the need just to say nice things’. One of the hockey coaches to which he wrote, took this as so offensive to even imply that there might be something negative to say about our esteemed hockey coach, they brought him up on harassment charges.
“He was kicked off campus, treated as a threat to the lives to the students of Oswego, even though nobody really thought he was.
“It was once again a case where because we took it public and because it got picked up by the website Gawker, we were able to get the university to back down. But it was amazing that it would even occur to universities to overreact to speech this tame.“
FIRE’s strategy to defend free speech is to use the threat of publicity. They send a letter to universities telling them to “get their act together” and if they fail to respond appropriately FIRE send out a press release.
“The main tool that we have is that universities can’t defend in public what they do in private. For example, there was a student in Indiana, who got in trouble for reading a book called Notre Dame versus the Klan, it was about the defeat of the Ku Klux Klan when they marched on Notre Dame in 1924. Because the book, which was an anti-Klan book, had a picture of a Klan rally on the cover he was found guilty of racial harassment without so much as a hearing.
“We follow the typical procedure in these cases – we send a letter to the university telling them to get their act together, and then if they don’t come to their senses we do a press release. Nine times out of ten, the press release does it, sometimes just the letter is enough.”
When the press release is unsuccessful FIRE defends students in the courts, in which they have been incredibly successful, winning every single challenge they have ever made against speech codes.
When FIRE does correct a university either through publicity or the courts, the institution rarely apologises for the harm they have done.
“Universities generally begrudgingly accept, they very rarely apologise for abusing student rights. It’s not totally clear that some of them even learn a lesson from it, except that you get in trouble with the US public if you violate free speech rules on what is supposed to be the greatest forum for the exchange of ideas in our country, US higher education.”
Questions are raised as to whether students’ unions are in touch with the average student’s opinion.
“When student governments make these kinds of decisions they are showing that they are very much not in touch with your average student.
“If these ideas were put to a vote they would be, I hope, deemed absurd by most students. But when you put them in the voice of authority, people don’t want to question when people seem to be pure of heart or have good motives. But here’s the problem, every movement in the history of censorship believed at some level it was saving the world. Victorians believed they were saving their country from eternal damnation. During the red scares, we believed we were saving ourselves from nuclear annihilation on one hand and Communist infiltration on the other. When people were going after abolitionist speech, their strongest argument was that this would lead to a civil war.
“That’s not a good argument particularly because those intentions, the way they usually manifest is so amorphous that it turns into something that can justify any inclination people in power want. That’s why you need to have, ironically, very clear lines. You need to say art can be expressive, art can be offensive, art can be challenging, and indeed probably it should be. As soon as you make the ability to express yourself contingent on the feelings of the listener, you open the possibility of silencing literally everyone.”
Lukianoff discussed the recent controversy with Manchester Debating Union’s debate on pornography coming up against censorship from the Union. Flyers featuring a provocative image of the porn star Sasha Grey were banned from Union property. One of the speakers, Guardian columnist Julie Bindel, was forced to drop out after receiving rape and death threats from people who felt her presence a threat to their safety.
Lukianoff believes using safety to justify restrictions on speech is dangerous.
“I think that sexual minorities, and people who otherwise benefit from the rights of individuality and the rights of free speech should be very careful with how they use terms like safety. I think that it’s really unfortunate that this is happening over higher education.
“Safety is supposed to mean that you are in physical danger, but it’s being used as a term that means you don’t want to be around people who anger you, who offend you, who deeply offend you. You don’t need a principle like freedom of speech to protect mainstream popular thought or opinion. You need it specifically to protect the kind of speech that might offend or might disturb.”
Lukianoff sees a cry wolf aspect to the invocation of safety.
“If you say you are in physical danger, when you just despise what someone has to say about you. When you are actually in physical danger people might think you mean that you’re just uncomfortable.
“I think that students should be very concerned by the way in which safety and the safe learning environment has been expanded to mean something as much as a right not to be offended.
“The students who objected to Bindel’s column benefit from free speech. They can and should protest the speaker. They absolutely have the right to do that. But when it turns into the idea that because someone’s speech was so fundamentally objectionable that this gives them the right to stop them speaking, then they are misunderstanding some of the fundamentals of the concept. By invoking safety in that case, they are pulling out a very big weapon that potentially in the long run could censor them and a lot of ideas that they believe in that are controversial.”
When the Students’ Union Exec banned the MDU’s flyers it was on the grounds they violated the Union’s policy of Zero Tolerance of Sexual Harassment. The Exec deemed the image objectifying because it was “a highly sexualised image of a woman in very little clothing.”
In his book Unlearning Liberty: Campus censorship and the end of American debate, Lukianoff argues harassment codes have been misinterpreted and are threatening free speech.
“The student at SUNY Oswego was brought up on harassment. The student who was punished for publicly reading a book about the Klan was found guilty of racial harassment.
“The abuse of harassment codes on college campuses is real and it makes people uncomfortable because they say ‘but people shouldn’t be racially and sexually harassed!’ We all agree that people should not be racially and sexually harassed. But racial and sexual harassment rules were never meant to restrict free speech.
“The problem is because there is such a strong belief in the rightness of preventing harassment…administrators are allowed to get away with the broadest possible interpretation of harassment, that effectively turns into the right not to be offended.”
The NUS has a No Platform policy, which prevents controversial speakers who hold far-right racist views from speaking. Speakers banned under the No Platform policy include Nick Griffin MEP, EDL Leader Tommy Robinson and Respect party leader George Galloway MP. Lukianoff added, that he believes such policies end up hurting the very students they aim to protect.
“Even if you hear the voice of ignorance, it helps you understand why you believe what you believe in the first place. If you have a set of beliefs that have never been challenged, there’s a tendency to not know why you had those beliefs in the first place. Holding your beliefs in the same way, in the same way people hold political prejudices means you are very good at explaining what they think on every single political issue. But, you are very poor at explaining why.
“Being offended is what happens when you have your deepest beliefs challenged, if you make it through four years of university without having your deepest beliefs challenged, you should ask for your money back.
“You can’t beat racism and discrimination by changing the law. You put some people into the position where it’s actually is easier to be racist because they don’t have to defend their ideas in the first place. They can just whisper the idea in someone’s ear and spread hateful opinions.”
Lukianoff talks of a further problem that restrictions on free speech contribute towards a climate of racial paranoia.
“John L Jackson, an African-American scholar at University of Pennsylvania, explains in his book Racial Paranoia that you can actually make people much more paranoid about the world they live in. You can have people believe that society is so savage, so hostile, so offensive, that the only thing that’s going to make this bearable for anyone to live in this society is the coercion of the law.
“If you want to know what the world actually looks like you have to hear what people think.
“There’s a value in knowing what people think, that if someone is racist or is hateful, the best thing they can do for you is to let you know that. If there’s a room of 24 people, and three are horrible Nazis it’s probably best that I know that.”
Lukianoff argues that the best action a student can take to fight censorship is to raise awareness about violations of free speech.
“I think in Britain there has to be a return to the idea of free speech being essential, even when it means hearing things that can potentially be hurtful. One thing that people have lost, particularly on campuses, is that at the core of freedom of speech is a deep-seated humility.
“We could all benefit by knowing a little bit more about what the other thinks, and approaching things with a little more humility about what we do, and what we can know. That’s the principle behind tolerance.
“You can’t predict what individual speech might incite someone to good action, incite someone to deep thought. The humility of a pluralistic system of free speech is something those who have a soft spot for censorship would do well to remember. “