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Aug 30, 2015
Presented by
Greg Lukianoff

Should offensive speech be banned? Where should we, as a society, draw the line where permitted speech is on one side, and forbidden speech is on the other? Should we even have that line? And should free speech be limited by things like trigger warnings and punishments for microaggressions? Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, answers these questions and more.

Freedom from speech is a threat to both pluralism and democracy—and is a violation of human rights.

  • Freedom from speech is a threat to both pluralism and democracy, a violation of human rights.View Source
  • Freedom of speech is most threatened on university campuses, precisely where it should be championed most.View Source

Speech censorship on college campuses allows students and faculty to silence the voices of those they disapprove of.

  • Disinvited speakers in recent years have included former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; the Somali-born feminist and critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali; Washington Post columnist George Will, and the director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde.View Source

The idea of freedom from speech is destroying free speech.

  • Freedom from speech is a threat to both pluralism and democracy, a violation of human rights.View Source
  • Freedom of speech is most threatened on university campuses, precisely where it should be championed most.View Source

Intellectual comfort is not a right.

  • The essence of free speech is that it must extend to those with whom we disagree and least want to hear; otherwise it has little meaning.View Source
  • If a right is denied to one group, the denial of that right will soon spread to other groups.View Source
  • Without protections for free speech, great minds, like Socrates, can be silenced for merely voicing their ideas.View Source

The majority of both public and private universities now impose politically correct speech codes on students.

  • The majority of both public and private universities impose politically correct speech codes on their students.View Source
  • In 2013 on a California campus, a student who also happened to be a decorated military veteran was told he could not hand out copies of the Constitution to his fellow students.View Source
  • In 2013, a college student in California was told that he could not protest NSA surveillance outside of a tiny "free speech zone."View Source

American universities’ “PC speech codes” have turned what should be beacons of liberty into “First Amendment-free” zones.

  • Popular academic theories encourage students to be on the lookout for "microaggressions”: any statements that might be construed as racially insensitive, classist, sexist, or otherwise not politically correct.View Source
  • The majority of both public and private universities impose politically correct speech codes on their students, and the number will likely increase.View Source

Like the “microaggression,” the "trigger warning” is just another tool to restrict free speech.

  • Many students are now demanding their professors provide “trigger warnings,” alerts that warn that they are about to read or hear something that "triggers" a negative emotional response.View Source
  • In 2014, a Rutgers student proposed issuing "trigger warnings" for the classic American novel The Great Gatsby because it portrays misogynistic violence.View Source
  • The right to safety on our campuses has come to mean the "right to always feel comfortable."View Source

The "trigger warning” is a tactic that helps students feel “safe” while trampling others’ rights.

  • Many students are now demanding their professors provide “trigger warnings,” alerts that warn that they are about to read or hear something that "triggers" a negative emotional response.View Source
  • In 2014, a Rutgers student proposed issuing "trigger warnings" for the classic American novel The Great Gatsby because it portrays misogynistic violence.View Source
  • The right to safety on our campuses has come to mean the "right to always feel comfortable."View Source

Freedom of speech. The ability to express yourself. It's a cherished idea -- as well it should be. Most of us who live in liberal Western democracies think of it as a basic human right. People have fought and died for it. But now we may be in danger of losing it.

The threat is not coming from without -- from external enemies -- but from within. A generation is being raised not to believe in freedom OF speech, but rather that they should have freedom FROM speech -- from speech they dislike. This is a threat to both pluralism and democracy itself.

We see this in Europe where "sensitivity-based" censorship attempts to ban anything deemed hateful or even just hurtful, and to ban criticism of religion, especially Islam.
But the United States, despite its strong Constitutional protections in the Bill of Rights is far from immune from the rising trend of suppression of speech, or what is sometimes called political correctness. This is especially true at America's colleges and universities, the place where our future leaders are educated and where you'd expect speech to be the most free.

Highly restrictive speech codes are now the norm on campuses, not the exception. According to a study by my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education -- FIRE -- 54% of public universities and 59% of private universities impose politically correct speech codes on their students. And thanks to recent Department of Education guidelines 100% of colleges may adopt speech codes in the coming years.

How bad is it?

At a public campus in California on Constitution Day in 2013, a student who also happens to be a decorated military veteran was told he could not hand out copies of the Constitution to his fellow students. The objection from the university was not ideological; it was out of control bureaucracy imposing limits on speech.

That same day another college student in that same state was told he could not protest NSA surveillance outside of a tiny "free speech zone," an area that comprised only 1.37% of the campus.

Months later, college students in Hawaii were told both they could not hand out the constitution to their fellow students and that they could not protest NSA policies outside the school's free speech zone! FIRE took these colleges to court, but the that fact we had to shows you how bad it has become.

Recently, students and sympathetic faculty have joined forces to exclude campus speakers whose opinions they dislike. At FIRE we call this "disinvitation season" although the season lasts all year round.

Since 2009 there has been a major uptick in the push by students and faculty to get speakers they dislike disinvited. These speakers have included former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; the Somali-born feminist and critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali; and the director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde. And that's only the obvious part of the disinvitation problem. Few conservative speakers are invited to speak at colleges lest they have to be "disinivited" later.

The newest threat to speech comes from so-called "trigger warnings" -- alerts that warn students that they are about to read or hear something that "triggers" a negative emotional response.

A 2014 NY Times article cited the example of a Rutgers student requesting "trigger warnings" for the classic American novel The Great Gatsby because it "possesses a variety of scenes that reference... abusive, misogynistic violence."

Recently, Oberlin College attempted to institute a policy that heavily encouraged the faculty to avoid difficult topics and to employ trigger warnings as a means of "making classrooms safer." 

"Safety" has been watered down to essentially mean the "right to always feel comfortable." New demands for trigger warnings are popping up on campuses across the country.

Add in popular academic theories that encourage students to scrutinize speech for "micro aggressions -- any statement that might be construed as racially insensitive, classist, sexist, or otherwise un-PC -- and it's clear that campuses are teaching students to police what they say. 

This is precisely the opposite of what is needed. Our society needs candor and it needs freedom of speech, not freedom from speech.

Intellectual comfort is not a right. Nor should it ever be. Not if we want freedom of speech -- let's just call it freedom -- to survive.

I'm Greg Lukianoff, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for Prager University.

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