The FIRE's Greg Lukianoff On Campus Censorship And Its Relation To American Discourse

This morning I had the great pleasure of having breakfast with Greg Lukianoff, President of the FIRE.

Anyone who has read Popehat for a while knows that I'm a huge FIRE fanboy. They fight for students' free expression at both public and private colleges. Moreover, they help educate students about freedom of expression and counteract the regrettably prevailing message that subjective offense or administrative convenience are legally or socially acceptable grounds for censorship.

Breakfast with Greg was as fun as a free-ranging talk with a fellow free-speech advocate and sci-fi aficionado could be. Greg gave me a preview of some of the themes and ideas from his upcoming book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, coming out in October. It's a pre-order and first-day-read for me. Based on my talk with Greg today, I'm looking forward to reading Greg's thoughts about the various avenues of campus censorship (both those based on subjective offense and, as in the recent and ridiculous UW-Stout case, based on pretense of danger), and how campus censorship and defective discourse is repeated and mirrored in the culture.

Greg is also the only First Amendment lawyer I've met who truly appreciates what I mean when I talk about giving the Kobiashi Maru speech to my associates, and doesn't look at me with judging rolley-eyes about it.

Check out Greg's book. Moreover, if any Southern Californians are interested in helping with a fundraiser for FIRE this October, let me know.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. TheOtherMatt says

    You mean the Kobiyshia Maru speech is obscure. It's only referenced at least once in every Star Trek series. And forms a key plot point in 2008. Do your underlings have no culture! I am surprised you have not remedied this horrifying lapse.

  2. C. S. P. Schofield says

    Re; The FIRE.

    I love idealistic organizations that make a habit of highlighting academia's stunning hypocrisy when it comes to the fundamental rights of those who decline to worship its sacred cows.

  3. TheOtherMatt says

    > Oh, I beat them.

    Personally I'd go with a high powered Nurf Gun (no scars) but whatever floatith thy boat

  4. says

    The Fire is one of the finest organizations on the front lines for free speech (and I am personally forever-grateful for their services). If you're old and loaded, you should leave a planned gift for them.

  5. Mercury says

    I’d be interested in checking out his book and see to what extent he thinks this hard and soft suppression of free expression is the result of the contemporaneous obsession with “multiculturalism”.

    Certainly expression/speech was never completely free 20, 30, 50 years ago but when the culture on campus and in society generally was more mono- blasphemies, taboos and other frowned-upon public expressions were more easily identified, agreed upon and therefore approached, avoided or circumvented. Now, beyond a certain perimeter, you have no idea where the mines are buried.

    Perhaps you can simply say that such things were more objective then and are more subjective now but if this development is in fact a consequence of fostering multiculturalism (accommodations for which will always be novel and in flux to a much greater extent than when everyone is striving for e pluribus unum) I don’t see how things can be any other way. I suspect we’ll be sleeping in this bed for as long as we have it.

  6. says

    Ken, you just posted that to piss me off since I had lunch out of a paper bag with the bankruptcy court judges today, and am now drafting an petition for probate.

  7. Will says

    I'm also a huge fan of advocating for free speech as against government censorship, but I don't see why FIRE picks fights with speech codes at private universities.

    True, SOME private universities have SOME speech codes that are misinformed and harmful to academic discourse. But as a libertarian and a big fan of unique communities, I really can't justify demanding that every university have a no-holds-barred approach to speech on campus. FIRE, for instance, railed against Yale for punishing frat boys who chanted 'No means yes, yes means anal' outside a women's dormitory.

    FIRE gives libertarians a bad name by helping confuse OUR point – that the specific institutional nature of the state makes state restrictions on freedom particularly suspect – with the straw man that libertarians often mistakenly defend – that freedom is the highest value and brooks no interference. If you want to rail against speech codes in secondary education, don't do it under the libertarian or 'free speech' banner.

  8. says


    I disagree. Here's why:

    FIRE disclaims, openly, that the private universities they criticize are private and not bound by the First Amendment (note exception below). When they call out such universities, they generally contrast the censorious conduct with the university's statements proclaiming support of free expression among students and faculty.

    If FIRE were charging around arguing incorrectly that private universities were subject to First Amendment regulation, you might be right. But they don't. See, e.g., this:

    Although Bowdoin is a private college not legally bound by the First Amendment, it is morally and contractually bound to honor its promises of freedom of speech for faculty members.

    Contrast that with what happened when private Liberty University — which proclaims its intended censoriousness openly — de-recognized the college Democracts. FIRE expressly explained that Liberty U is private and doesn't pretend to defend speech.

    Moreover, I see no inconsistency with libertarians criticizing private choices. That's not the same as calling for government regulation of those choices. My neighbor can create a private soccer club that excludes, say, Hispanic kids; I can call him a bigoted jackass without being less of a libertarian. Criticism does not impinge freedom.

    (Exception noted above: California has the "Leonard Law" applying First Amendment protections to private colleges; other jurisdictions might have more limited protections.)

  9. Will says

    Of course libertarians can criticize private choices, but the game changes when they are doing so through a group which is easily confused (yes, my argument prioritizes the ordinary person's perceptions) with a 'libertarian group.' FIRE describes itself as "devoted to free speech, individual liberty, religious freedom, the rights of conscience, legal equality, …" These are words associated with legal or political movements, either implicitly or explicitly.

    My point is that your point – and FIRE's – is nuanced. The audience FIRE needs to reach is not nuanced. FIRE is mixing personal opinions (speech codes are bad) right in with straight up legal opinions (speech codes at public universities are often unconstitutional). Most people skip over sentences like 'Bowdoin is a private college not legally bound by the First Amendment, but . . .' etc. etc.

    FIRE is sending a message which is logically consistent, but confusing to the average observer and detrimental to the classical liberal movement.

    Not only do I personally disagree that speech codes at private universities are bad things – e.g., I want to send my daughter to a college that might punish the Yale frat boys – I also think that FIRE foolishly relegated itself to blind defense of 'free speech.'

    This is a quote from a Patrick O'Brian book. Just replace 'my country' with 'free speech': "But you know as well as I, patriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile."

  10. Mercury says

    Well, as much as I think places like Bowdoin are run by a bunch of jackasses it's hard to get to excited about outfits like FIRE trying to insert itself between two groups of consenting adults (one of whom is paying through the nose to be oppressed by the other) like they appear to be doing. Let them cut the crusts off their own PB&Js.

    They should be more concerned when these same pampered utopians try to carry their rainbows, unicorns and magic spells out of Hogwarts and cram them down our throats in the public square.

  11. princessartemis says

    My point is that your point – and FIRE's – is nuanced. The audience FIRE needs to reach is not nuanced.

    They can become nuanced. Raise them up to the level of nuanced discourse instead of lowering the discourse to their level. IMHO.