The Corner

Colleges Hate Free Speech. Why Should I Care?

I’ve been tardy in discussing FIRE president Greg Lukianoff’s outstanding new book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, for a couple reasons. First, NRO’s own Robert VerBruggen has already written an excellent review. Second, as a past president of FIRE and someone who considers Greg not only a good friend but a stalwart defender of liberty, I’m hardly unbiased. I’ve been looking forward to Greg’s book for a long time.

And Greg doesn’t disappoint. To be clear, this is not a politically conservative book. Indeed, when I worked with Greg at FIRE we were a bit of an odd couple. I was the southern Christian conservative, and he was the northeastern agnostic liberal. But we both shared a deep love for the First Amendment and a deep conviction (developed through personal experience) that it was under attack nowhere more than on our college campuses. 

After many years of interacting with the wider conservative public, I have no trouble at all convincing students, parents, media, and many others that our nation’s colleges not only despise the values most Americans hold dear but also go out of their way to indoctrinate students and silence dissenters (the evidence is simply overwhelming). The result of that knowledge, unfortunately, is too often a desire to simply shun the mainstream academy — to retreat to those few educational institutions that still value liberty — or to hope that newly radicalized students will do what we’ve convinced ourselves students always do — grow up after they experience the “real world.”

Greg’s book should shake the complacent to their core. His book answers the question I ask above. Why should you care? Because thanks to our colleges and universities entire American generations are now “unlearning liberty” — rejecting liberty as independently valuable and redefining “debate” as essentially the right of an ideological majority to shout at a mute minority. Political majorities come and go, but our commitment to our most basic civil liberties should remain constant. And colleges and universities threaten that commitment more than any other American cultural institution.

No book about the modern academy would be complete without stories so outrageous you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, and Unlearning Liberty doesn’t disappoint. The stories make the book engaging, but Greg’s conclusions make the book important. Well done, my friend.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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