Unlearning Liberty: A must-read to deter the degradation of discourse

By William R. Toler

It isn’t hard to see the extreme socio-political polarization running rampant across the purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain.

Left versus right. Black versus white. Us versus them.

One new book lays, at least part of, the blame at the door of the nation’s educational institutions. American colleges and universities were once referred to as “The Marketplace of Ideas.” Nowdays, those grand halls of inquistiveness have turned to inquisition where the “wrong ideas” can leave you castigated as an intellectual leper.

After 10 years of seeing the degradation of discourse first-hand through his work at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Greg Lukianoff decided to pick up where his predecessors left off. Prior to forming the organization, professor Alan Charles Kors and attorney Harvey Silverglate compiled a list of First Amendment and due process violations for The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses.

Lukianoff’s book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, not only profiles a number of recent cases, but explains the correlation between silencing speech on campus and the implications on the rest of society. “[The book] is my attempt to do justice to the plight of these students and faculty,” writes Lukianoff in the Acknowledgments section, “both those we [at FIRE] could help and those we couldn’t.”

Each chapter begins with a hypothetical journey, presuming the reader is a student first perparing for and then entering college. The reader is faced with scenarios of censorship that would seem ludicrous to anyone with any idea of what liberty should be. But, as Lukianoff points out, those silly situations are based on egregious examples of real events.

The first case to open the book involves a student at Valdosta State Universtiy who was deemed a “clear and present danger” in 2007 for a Facebook collage satirizing a parking garage on campus. Hayden Barnes was kicked off campus and “promised” an appeal providing a “certificate of mental health.”The college’s president, Ronald Zaccari, took the collage as an “indirect threat” because Barnes had named it the Zacarri Memorial Parking Garage, referencing “Zacarri’s claim that the garage was to be part of his legacy.” Barnes was later vindicated after a federal lawsuit that ended earlier this year. Surpisingly, Zaccari was found liable for damages. I say surprisingly, because officials are usually let off the hook becuase of “qualified immunity.”

And so begins one common theme throughout the book: overzealous administrators punishing students for peaceful dissent by protected speech. Chapter 7 was aptly titled “Don’t Question Authority” and highlights a variety of speech codes and censorship cases, including the Firefly case, involving a theater professor. One student in North Carolina was barred from graduation for a Facebook post criticizing the administration for carrying on business as usual despite a majority of students having their lives turned upside down by a recent tornado.

But it’s not just administrators that are the problem. Students have developed a perverted sense of freedom of speech, believing that it’s ok to use their “speech” to silence others. There have been several cases of students destroying pro-life displays because, as one student said, “I feel like I have the right to walk across campus without seeing that.” One such “protest” was led by a professor. Instead of engaging in honest debate, some students prefer to shout down speakers or pelt them with pies.

Sometimes students and adminstrators or other staff/faculty (as noted above) join together to shut down speech or ideas they don’t simply don’t like or feel “offended” by. One of the most startling examples was a college-sanctioned mob to shut down The Passion of the Musical, a play that was billed as being “offensive or inflammatory to all audiences.”

Colleges often get accused by “conservatives” of brainwashing students with a “liberal” agenda. In some cases, that may not be far from the truth. Chapter 5 exposes several cases of thought reform–”programs designed to get students to adopt particular ideological and political beliefs.” In the name of diversity and tolerance, these programs attempt to instill conformity and intolerance of any views contrary to what the instillers see as “the correct views.”

This book covers a wide range of topics from speech codes to “free speech zones” to political correctness run amok to newspaper thefts. To cover them all would border on plagiarism, so I encourage you to read the book for yourself, and make up your own mind…just as the author would want you to do.

“Imagine a country where disagreement is welcome,” Lukianoff writes, “where disagreement is welcome, where thought experimentation and playful candor are encouraged, where people are at peace with the knowledge that they might be proven wrong. To me, at least, that place sounds like heaven compared to the bipolar mindlessness of today’s public square.”




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