Here I’m using fascist in the usual sense – heavy-handed, threatening, authoritarian – rather than in the structural sense.
At Yale University, you can be prevented from putting an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote on your T-shirt. At Tufts, you can be censured for quoting certain passages from the Quran. Welcome to the most authoritarian institution in America: the modern university—”a bizarre, parallel dimension,” as Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, calls it.
Mr. Lukianoff, a 38-year-old Stanford Law grad, has spent the past decade fighting free-speech battles on college campuses. The latest was last week at Fordham University, where President Joseph McShane scolded College Republicans for the sin of inviting Ann Coulter to speak.
Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, on the battle for free speech on college campuses. Photo: Getty Images
“To say that I am disappointed with the judgment and maturity of the College Republicans . . . would be a tremendous understatement,” Mr. McShane said in a Nov. 9 statement condemning the club’s invitation to the caustic conservative pundit. He vowed to “hold out great contempt for anyone who would intentionally inflict pain on another human being because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or creed.”
To be clear, Mr. McShane didn’t block Ms. Coulter’s speech, but he said that her presence would serve as a “test” for Fordham. A day later, the students disinvited Ms. Coulter. Mr. McShane then praised them for having taken “responsibility for their decisions” and expressing “their regrets sincerely and eloquently.”
Mr. Lukianoff says that the Fordham-Coulter affair took campus censorship to a new level: “This was the longest, strongest condemnation of a speaker that I’ve ever seen in which a university president also tried to claim that he was defending freedom of speech.”
I’m personally not a Coulter fan, but that is beside the point. Here’s what could have happened to those students if they hadn’t taken the hint: Their standing in the university community could have suffered, including grades and recommendations for grad school. In other words, their ability to choose their future professional field and train for it might have disappeared because they failed to toe the line. And so, wisely, they backed down.
I caught up with Mr. Lukianoff at New York University in downtown Manhattan, where he was once targeted by the same speech restrictions that he has built a career exposing. Six years ago, a student group at the university invited him to participate in a panel discussion about the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that had sparked violent rioting by Muslims across the world.
When Muslim students protested the event, NYU threatened to close the panel to the public if the offending cartoons were displayed. The discussion went on—without the cartoons. Instead, the student hosts displayed a blank easel, registering their own protest.
“The people who believe that colleges and universities are places where we want less freedom of speech have won,” Mr. Lukianoff says. “If anything, there should be even greater freedom of speech on college campuses. But now things have been turned around to give campus communities the expectation that if someone’s feelings are hurt by something that is said, the university will protect that person. As soon as you allow something as vague as Big Brother protecting your feelings, anything and everything can be punished.”
However, if you believe that universities train the next generation of professionals to function in society, the universities are doing the right thing here. Our culture is turning fascistic and it is unproductive, if not downright unsafe at this point, for people to speak out. Therefore, the universities are doing their job. It is up to the rest of us to return the culture to the values of free speech and liberty. (If you believe that the universities should be doing that because of something Aristotle said a bajillion years ago, I have a wonderful investment opportunity in Nigeria, just for you!)
PS – Check out the entire interview. Greg Lukianoff maintains a website detailing campus free speech violations. He’s interesting.