Campus conversations

Author defends free speech during NMU talk

First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff speaks Monday at Northern Michigan University’s Jamrich Hall on Monday about “The Threat to Free Speech on Campus and What to Do About It.” The event was hosted by the NMU Center for Academic and Intellectual Freedom, with grant support from the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — The First Amendment and how it’s being applied in some cases on university campuses is being called into question.

Greg Lukianoff, author and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, presented “The Threat to Free Speech on Campus and What do Do About It” on Monday at Northern Michigan University’s Jamrich Hall.

Lukianoff is co-author, with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, of “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.”

He believes the lack of experience in uninhibited debate is a big problem in modern university life.

“Because campuses, frankly, tend to be so monolithic — people think that everyone agrees — there’s a sense that, ‘Oh, well, power will always be on my side, power will do the right thing if I can just guilt them into doing it,’ without realizing that the more power you give to power, ultimately the people it’s going to harm in the long run are minorities or oddballs or free thinkers,” Lukianoff said. “I see this time and time again in my work.”

What he’s also seen are people harboring stereotypes of campus life being the “evil conservative against the nice left-leaning students” or the “good students fighting the racists and the bigots.”

Things are more complicated.

Several factors, though, threaten campus free speech, he said.

“One of them, of course, is political correctness, a term I don’t love all that much because I feel like it means such different things to liberals and conservatives,” Lukianoff said.

Other factors are administrators controlling the campus environment, the federal government, the “professoriate,” student “illiberalism” and the “outrage” mobs, he said.

Lukianoff provided many examples of college free speech being curtailed, including the “free speech gazebo” at Texas Tech University, which he called “20 feet wide of freedom for all 28,000 students.”

Another was the speech code at the University of West Alabama that bans “harsh” text messages or emails as part of its online cyberbullying and cyber harassment policy.

“Whenever I tell students about this, it’s like, ‘So, who in here has never arguably sent a harsh email or text message?’ — and do you really want administrators to punish you for that?” Lukianoff asked.

UCLA and other schools have a policy against “microaggressions,” which he said are defined as “tiny forms of violence against the oppressed” that include statements such as “Where were you born?” and “America is a melting pot.”

Microaggressions, though, should be studied, he said.

“‘How do we unintentionally slight each other?’ is an incredibly interesting academic idea, and how we can do better is very important, but as soon as it gets in the hands of administrators, unfortunately it becomes a code that basically says, ‘I don’t like it when people say the following things,'” Lukianoff said.

He also expressed concern about what he considers three “great untruths” that are being woven into American childhood and education: What doesn’t kill you will make you weaker, always trust your feelings, and life is a battle between good people and evil people.

That worries him from a free speech standpoint as well as another aspect — that students are saying someone can’t come to campus because they would be offended, and that it’s going to “mentally harm” others.

“Cognitive distortions are basically mental exaggerations that every single one of us makes,” he said.

Lukianoff suggested people get in the habit of talking back to those distortions.

“You can actually fight anxiety and depression,” said Lukianoff, who acknowledged having personal experience with this method.

And not only are students being taught bad habits relating to freedom of speech, they are being taught the habits of anxious and depressed people, he said.

“We’re disempowering them,” Lukianoff said. “We’re taking away the activities, the skills that actually make you feel like a human being.”

He recommended students argue “fairly” with themselves and others; address an argument, not a person; fight for their rights of freedom of speech as well as others’ rights; and seek out “smart people” with whom they disagree.

Gabriel Noah Brahm, director of the NMU Center for Academic and Intellectual Freedom and professor of English at Northern Michigan University, spoke at the event to lend his support of open dialogue.

“The center is ecumenical,” Brahm said. “We aim to enhance the quality of life on campus for everyone by improving the quality of our public conversation, our shared conversation about important matters of comment, concern.”

The center, he noted, accomplishes this by promoting viewpoint diversity, supporting open inquiry and celebrating excellence in higher education.

“That means we’re an antidote to political correctness,” Brahm said. “We include conservative as well as liberal voices,” Brahm said.

Timothy Eggert, this year’s Peter White Scholar and a research assistant for Brahm, told the audience that Monday’s presentation was an appropriate symbol of CAIF’s purpose.

“I also think it’s really important, not only to the future of Northern but to the future of our country, that we hear what he has to say, for as he exhibits in his 2012 book, ‘Unlearning Liberty,’ what happens on campus doesn’t just stay on campus,” Eggert said. “It bleeds into the larger society, and what’s been happening in recent years, as students of my generation know well, has not been all good.”

For more information about the center, visit thecaif.org. For more details on FIRE, visit thefire.org.