Where Is Free Speech Heading at America’s Universities?

The Charles Koch Institute brought several distinguished voices together at the International Students For Liberty Conference last weekend in Washington, DC, to discuss the essential role toleration plays in a free society.

Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and author of one of 2015’s most read articles, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” addressed a packed room as he spoke about the importance of an open society and its enemies on campus. Lukianoff began by lamenting the pervasive use of confirmation bias and ideological segregation on today’s campuses: “When it comes to freedom of speech, I think the more comfortable and more isolated societies get, the easier it is to only get exposed to ideas you agree with.”

The result, Lukianoff argued, is that students are becoming increasing incapable of civilly engaging with ideas that make them uncomfortable, and they resort to attempts to restrict the speech of others to avoid confrontation with challenging thought. “There are people who not only believe you have a right not to be offended, but believe that you have a right to be confirmed, a right to be agreed with.”

Lukianoff also took free speech codes to task, pointing out examples of egregious campus censorship, including a student being forced to stop distributing copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day because he was not inside the university’s free speech zone. “How does it make sense to force students to ask permission to use a space labeled a free speech zone?” Lukianoff asked, before drawing cheers when he announced that FIRE has won every lawsuit it has filed challenging speech codes at universities.


Long rounds of applause were also heard at the Institute’s evening panel, featuring a conversation with Christina Hoff Summers and improvisational comedy from the Theater of Public Policy. Sommers, a former professor of philosophy and current resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, lamented that in a culture of intolerance on college campuses, “today’s feminism is becoming unrecognizable. … It’s almost as if they’re treating young women [like] fragile little birds, which is the opposite of what feminism should be.”

Sommers, who, as the subject of controversy for her approach to feminism, has required security when speaking on campuses around the country, pointed to data from the University of California, Los Angeles that shows a record high in the percentage of college freshmen who believe speakers should be banned from appearing at universities.

Sommers, like Lukianoff, takes issue with the prevalence of confirmation bias and its effect on civic discourse. “When I taught philosophy,” she said, “there was one commandment: Thou shalt teach both sides.” Sommers explained that this approach to thought could help bring more tolerance to colleges and universities: “The best way to empower girls and boys is through education; the best thing to do is to bring back freedom. Bring back debate. Let us have real debates.”

Are you interested in exploring the role of free speech on college campuses or the significance of toleration in a free society? Visit the Charles Koch Foundation’s Request for Proposals page to view grant and research opportunities.

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