Thursday, September 18, 2014

Arnold Ahlert: Freedom from Speech

by Arnold Ahlert

“Freedom From Speech,” a 61-page broadside written by Freedom for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) president Greg Lukianoff, deftly illustrates the evolving assault on free speech. “The public’s appetite for punishing attempts at candor gone wrong, drunken rants, or even private statements made in anger or frustration seems to be growing at an alarming rate,” Lukianoff warns.

The author cites a range of incidents to make his initial point, covering a large and diverse cast of characters. They include former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, chef Paula Deen, actors Gary Oldman and Mel Gibson, media’s Don Imus and Juan Williams and others, all of whom elicit varying degrees of sympathy, even as they have all fallen prey to the “modern American censor” who demands that “there must be zero tolerance for anything that anyone might find offensive, regardless of the context.”

Using former Mozilla Corporation CEO Brendan Eich’s firing for opposing same-sex marriage in California in 2008—a position he reminds us was held by a majority of Americans, as well as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama before they “evolved”—Lukianoff outlines the difference between the First Amendment and freedom of speech. The former protects freedom of speech and the press as they relate to issues of the state, while the latter embraces a whole range of additional cultural values. Values that ought to be defined by the idea that a free and open exchange of ideas—no matter how upsetting—must be maintained. Lukianoff explains his focus is on free speech itself, and he believes that there is a growing hostility towards it as a cultural value.

Unsurprisingly, his first target is American higher education, and he notes that FIRE has been “busier than ever” during the 2013-2014 school year.

Yet while he believes there has been a “bleeding out” from the so-called ivory tower, he notes the phenomenon has spread across the globe. He concedes that suppressing speech is part of many nations’ DNA, but he is concerned that  countries that share America’s classic liberal tradition have been equally vulnerable to the assault. He is especially troubled by the European Court of Justice’s “right to be forgotten” ruling imposed on Google and other search engines, all of whom are now required to remove references about private parties unless the companies can present a public interest justification for the information. He notes the vagueness of the standard and the implications for a stunted free press that derives from it. The impetus behind the cultural hostility is chilling: “people all over the globe are coming to expect emotional and intellectual comfort as though it were a right,” Lukianoff explains.

The emanations of those expectations are chilling. The author begins noting that our advance in terms of science and technology has brought unparalleled wealth and comfort, that in turn drives our desire for intellectual comfort. It is an intellectual comfort “at odds” with the three pillars of modern society, namely democracy, capitalism and determining truth. And while he insists all ideological points of view can embrace censorship, he notes the divide between progressive and conservatives is based on morality. Conservatives have many sources for determining morality, such as sacredness, loyalty and respect for authority, while progressives embrace one: the “care ethic.”

It is this one dimensionality that explains why “the push for sensitivity based censorship increasingly comes from the left wing of the spectrum,” he writes.

Lukianoff cites several examples of the now-familiar speech codes that infest many universities, but he discusses other disturbing trends as well. One is the disinvitation phenomenon; Lukianoff chronicles several high-profile speakers whose disinvitations took three forms: either their invitations were revoked, they were forced to withdraw in the face of protests, or they were subjected to a “heckler’s veto” by students and faculty who didn’t want their sensibilities offended.

Yet the most daunting form of censorship cited by the author is “trigger warnings.” “Seemingly overnight, colleges and universities across America have been fielding student demands that their professors issue content warning before covering any material that might evoke a negative emotional response,” Lukianoff reveals. These trigger warning arose in Internet chat rooms and were initiated to help those who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) arising from experiences such as rape. They subsequently took root on college campuses and have evolved to the point where virtually any subject that elicits student discomfort of any kind is expected to have one. Lukianoff sounds the ominous warning. “The idea that we can tackle truly hard issues while remaining universally inoffensive—an impossible pipe dream even if it were desirable—seems to be growing increasingly popular,” he writes.

He also explains the daunting effect trigger warnings have on professors, who can face removal or the loss of tenure for subject matter that has the potential to offend. Seven professors penned an article for Inside Higher Ed, stating that the movement “has already had a chilling effect on [their] teaching and pedagogy.” Doubtless it has, but as Lukianoff notes that trigger warnings remain a “formidable weapon” because those who oppose them “are accused of being insensitive to the needs of ‘vulnerable groups.’” Furthermore, casting any doubt on any assertions of vulnerability constitutes “‘victim blaming’ which only a coldhearted monster would do,” Lukianoff explains. He see the future as a “global race to the bottom, and it is being run most fiercely in higher education. In the process, candor, discussion, humor, honest dialogue and freedom of speech are imperiled,” he contends.

His solutions for the problem include litigation, as well as re-igniting “the old-fashioned intellectual habits of epistemic humility, giving others the benefit of the doubt, and actually listening to opposing opinions.”

In conclusion, he tells us to expect more writing from him on the subject.  If “Freedom From Speech” is indicative of Lukianoff’s insight, readers would be well-advised to keep track of his future endeavors. Americans need to know what is threatening one of the bedrock principles of our nation’s birthright, and Greg Lukianoff is making it his mission to keep us informed. In short, “Freedom From Speech” is a highly worthwhile read — both for pleasure and for a better understanding of the grave threat on the march.

Arnold Ahlert is a former NY Post op-ed columnist currently contributing to, and He may be reached at


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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