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Student Governments Against Free Speech

I’m still reading Greg Lukianoff’s book “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate” .  Truly hair-raising.  (Lukianoff isan attorney and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, aka FIRE.)

I’ve just finished the section called “Student Government Gone Wild”, about the shocking – but not surprising – tyrannical nature of many student governments at colleges across the USA.  I say that it’s not surprising because, after having read the previous 10 chapters of this book, I can’t imagine that a significant portion of the student body would not have learned how to be tyrants against non-PC points of view.

Here are a couple of excerpts from this chapter:

EXCERPT: “Something that should probably keep you up at night is the fact that student governments, which are often seen as training grounds for future politicians and lawmakers, harbor attitudes towards basic free speech and due process rights that are more akin to petty dictatorships than to the American Founding Fathers…”

EXCERPT: “At the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2009, students organized to get rid of copies of a conservative newspaper that mocked student government officials.  A UMass police officer stood by as angry students tore copies of the newspaper out of the hands of another student.  Rather than distance itself from this effort at censorship, the student government later passed a resolution in support of shutting down the newspaper if it did not apologize for mocking them.  The university eventually rejected the resolution to punish the paper, but only after FIRE stepped in.”

COMMENT: Since student government and student journalism are both rehearsals for real-world government and real-world journalism, the student government should be held to the strictest standards of respect  for freedom of speech and press.

We do not and should not legally punish regular newspapers for editorials mocking government officials.  University administrations should have the sense not to allow student governments to infringe on the right of the student press to mock the student government *or* to mock the university administration, for that matter.

That it took an organization like FIRE  to get the university to do the right thing should be troubling to everyone who understands the importance of freedom of the press.  This is not an isolated incident – the book is rich with examples of tyrannical breaches of freedom of speech and failures to uphold the individual rights of students in other areas as well.   FIRE is overwhelmed with cases that need defending.

I believe that college campuses are among the most important – if not the most important – places to take a stand for individual rights.  This is where young people should be learning about the principles and procedures that keep corruption and dictatorship at bay.  That’s why I’m bugging people to read Lukianoff’s book and – if they agree that it’s an important book – to blog it and Facebook it and tell their face-to-face friends about it.

I’ve been talking to people about the topic of the book, and it looks to me that a lot of people have no idea what’s been going on at colleges in regard to this most important aspect of our liberty.




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  1. SydneyKendall

    Here is a recent article by FIRE on what FIRE is calling a “Campus Censorship Blueprint” – a joint settlement with the University of Montana and the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Education (ED) of what constitutes sexual harassment. FIRE opposes the new standard as extremely broad and dangerous to freedom of speech and to justice:

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  2. SydneyKendall

    Here is a video by Greg Lukianoff and FIRE about the “Campus Censorship Blueprint” I mentioned in the preceding comment.

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  3. SydneyKendall

    I’ve finished reading “Unlearning Liberty” and I cannot recommend it enough.

    Well, some readers might think I’ve recommended it enough and wish I’d get on with something else. But this is one of my ongoing big deals. Freedom of speech is the most crucial freedom. It makes it possible for bad ideas, bad customs, and bad policies to be challenged, for liars to be caught out and corrupt governments to be criticized and changed. It is the freedom without which the only means left to fight falsehood and injustice is violent rebellion, which – if a government is well-armed and fears no external intervention – is unlikely to be effective.

    Furthermore, as this book shows, the quality of intellectual endeavor is also at stake, as non “politically correct” arguments are often so demonized that they don’t get a hearing, and assumptions about those views are allowed to prevail without examination.

    This is not teaching students how to question, probe, and proceed by an objective method of inquiry. But that lesson is the most important purpose of education, whether in grade school, high school, or college. For schools to model the opposite method of proceeding is a gross failure of duty. And it is a grave threat to the future of liberty (not to mention the future of reason and justice). If “Unlearning Liberty” has done an objective and honest job in reporting what’s happening in higher education today, we’re in real trouble.

    It is essential that the crucial importance of freedom of speech is not undermined in the minds of our (allegedly) most educated people. This book shows that it *is* being undermined in higher education today. It’s being undermined by what is and is not being taught in the classroom as well as by example in the campus policies and practices created and enforced by college administrations.

    If you want your young people to grasp what freedom of speech (and the press) is and why it must be defended against all encroachments, then give them this book as an introduction. It’s an issue they are or will be facing in their school career, and an issue that our whole society needs to get right from generation to generation.

    Unlearning Liberty: Campus censorship and the end of Debate in America –

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