Getting Back to Basics on Free Speech

At colleges and universities across the country, from Cal Poly-Humboldt to Columbia, students have been protesting against the war in Gaza. Some of those protesters have demanded that their universities divest from companies that may directly or indirectly support Israeli military operations, others have called for a cease-fire, while others have far wider demands.

The protests have generated another round of discussion (and endless takes on the internet) about free speech on college campuses. Which forms of speech are permissible (and legal)? What about universities that purportedly champion free speech suddenly deciding that maybe there’s such a thing as too much freedom of speech? And, personally, I want to know why we pay so much attention to Ivy League schools most of us didn’t go to.

I spoke with Greg Lukianoff, the president and C.E.O. of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). His most recent book, written with Rikki Schlott, is “The Canceling of the American Mind: Cancel Culture Undermines Trust and Threatens Us All — But There Is a Solution.” We discussed what free speech is and isn’t, what conservatives are getting wrong about college campuses, and how Oct. 7 changed how he views free speech.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity and is part of an Opinion Q. and A. series exploring modern conservatism today, its influence in society and politics and how and why it differs (and doesn’t) from the conservative movement that most Americans thought they knew. And, for disclosure, I spoke to FIRE’s Student Network Conference in 2021.

Jane Coaston: What do college campuses mean to you?

Greg Lukianoff: Done right, their single most important contribution is edging toward truth, not by getting there directly, but by chipping away at falsity. Professors getting in trouble for their opinions is much more dangerous than people understand. Because when people see that, it rightfully undermines their belief that experts are actually being objective. Even if there’s just social pressure to come to certain conclusions, that’s bad enough for the search for truth. Nearly one-third of professors report that administrators are telling them to steer clear of “controversial research.”

[Mr. Lukianoff was citing FIRE’s own research.]

Coaston: Why do you think we fixate on very specific types of college campuses? Your book features lengthy discussions of both Harvard and Yale. Most people don’t go to the Ivies; most people don’t go to college, period. What is the impact of activities at Ivy League campuses on people who went to Auburn or Michigan, or Eastern Michigan or Northern Michigan?

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