"Unlearning Liberty": An Important But Frightening Tale of How We're Being Taught to Accept Censorship

Greg Lukianoff's new book "Unlearning Liberty" is not a feel-good opus. In fact, it ought to leave us feeling very concerned about the attitudes being taught in universities across America. Why? Greg offers a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: "the philosophy of the classroom today will be the philosophy of government tomorrow." Greg presents a disturbingly persuasive case that the philosophy of the American classroom today is intolerant of dissent and accepting of all sorts of censorship.

Greg's the President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and the royalties from Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate will support FIRE. That's a worthy cause, and Greg has written a very worthy (if disturbing) book.

In Unlearning Liberty, Greg reviews the different occasions and excuses for censorship in modern American universities, marshaling a bewildering array of case studies. Some were familiar to me: the ludicrous reaction to posters at University of Wisconsin-Stout, the legal threats to critics of the administration of Peace College, and the entirely repellent tale of Indiana University punishing a student worker for reading a book about struggles against the Klan in front of coworkers. Many others were new to me — and I follow FIRE fairly closely. Greg has a talent for describing instances of censorship in a way to outrage me anew even if I have heard of them before. (For instance, I defy anyone to read about the University of Delaware's frankly Stalinist reeducation program for frosh without feeling disgust and contempt; Greg offers new details that led me to put the book down and go take a walk for a while.)

But this is not merely a compilation of cases. Greg traces the history of campus censorship after the "political correctness" disputes of the 1990s, and weaves the incidents of censorship together to explain how different vaguely defined ideas (like "harassment" and "disruption" and "civility") are used in an unprincipled manner as trump cards to shut people up. Moreover, Greg rather convincingly illustrates how university censorship impacts the attitudes and tolerances of students, and explains why we should fear that students taught to submit to censorship and due process violations will not be reliable supporters of free expression or due process as voting adults.

Moreover, if you're one of those people who think that FIRE — or other critics of speech codes — have a conservative bias, this book should quell your suspicions. Greg articulates why his own left-of-center beliefs lead him to support free expression and criticize campus censorship. Greg documents censorship of both "liberal" and "conservative" expression, but also demonstrates that censorship is about official power, not about ideology — as cases like the Hayden Barnes matter at Valdosta State University demonstrate. Many of the incidents described in the book are not about administrators censoring speech because they don't agree with its politics; they are about administrators censoring speech because they feel entitled to be free of criticism or dissent.

Though Greg paints a grim picture, the book offers hope. Time and time again he demonstrates how a letter from FIRE and a public outcry can lead universities to reconsider censorious actions. Shame may accomplish what lack of principle could not. We're all the agents of that shame.

I highly recommend "Unlearning Liberty." Even as someone who follows FIRE and free speech issues quite closely, I learned many new things from it and left it with an increased appreciation of freedom of expression and dedication to the cause. Give it a try.

Also, if you're a neighbor, come to hear Greg speak about the book and about his work at FIRE at the Los Angeles Press Club on November 29th. I hope to see some of you there. No crazy stalkers please.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. ZK says

    I'm curious if phrases like "No crazy stalkers please" have ever actually dissuaded crazy stalkers. Any crazy stalkers out there care to comment if this request has convinced them to pass on this particular stalking opportunity?

  2. says

    Just ordered the book for Kindle… Now I just need to schedule some business trips so I have time on an airline to read it :-)

    Apparently I'm not a crazy stalker, because the idea of driving from OC up to LA on a Thursday night after work to attend an event like this (and meet Ken) just isn't going to happen. And that's a mere 45 miles [2 hrs in LA traffic, of course] away.

  3. Chris R. says

    This is why we can't let small infringements on our free speech to go unnoticed, because it makes it easier to gradually accept larger infringements. It's like a kid stealing candy and then moving up to action figures etc.

  4. says

    I was a junior at UD when they implemented that program. I don't know what the status of it is now, but they had begun to do things like that when I was there. Most of us just sort of ignored it. Mandatory floor meeting? "Uh, sorry, I'm an engineering student, I have to study. Go fuck yourself." There was no consequence to not participating, at least that I ever saw, but I know now that they've added some sort of "Freshman Experience," whatever that means, so things may have changed. Suffice to say that while they certainly wanted you to participate in the floor bonding meetings and awareness stuff, you certainly were not required to, even if they said you were. The worst that happened is your RA would ask you where you were, and say something like, "Well, you should have been there."

    To which I would respond with a (slightly more civil) variation on my line about being an engineering student.

    What I do know for sure is that UD hasn't gotten one red cent from me (except for a couple of football games I've gone to and the occasional parking lot usage) since I graduated, and they're not going to as long as programs like this exist.