Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Who Is Censored More?

Greg Lukianoff, director of FIRE, did an interview recently on the new web video program “Inside Academia.” Greg made this comment: “You're definitely more likely to get into trouble for expressing a socially conservative viewpoint, no two ways about that.”(at 10:40)

This remark is at the heart of my long-running argument with Greg and FIRE. I admire much of what FIRE does, and wish that a liberal civil liberties group could join them to tag team on these issues. But Greg's remark, if taken to cover all of higher education, is simply false. The worst speech codes in the country, without question, are found at conservative, religious colleges. FIRE often forgets about these cases because they categorically refuse to criticize such colleges unless they claim to protect student freedom.

The only issue in debate is whether Greg would be right if we limited his statement to public colleges and secular private colleges. That's harder to determine. We simply don't have the information available to determine whether liberal or conservative views get censored more often. (And, no, the cases reported to FIRE are not a representative sample because they're a conservative civil liberties group with strong ties to campus conservative groups and therefore more likely to hear from censored conservatives.) But my belief is that students on both the right and the left face censorship, and it's difficult to make any overall judgment about who is censored more. I document plenty of examples on both sides in my books on The Myth of Political Correctness and Patriotic Correctness. Ultimately, we don't need to fight about who is censored more; we need to stop all censorship.

But that doesn't mean comments like Greg's are unimportant. When erroneous and unproven claims are made that only conservatives are censored on campuses, it lends support to the repressive forces on the right, such as David Horowitz, who want to impose more conservative control over campuses. If you believe that only liberals engage in censorship on campus, then it might seem reasonable to say that conservatives need to be given more power over academia, that conservatives need preferential hiring and support on campus. But if the real problem is censorship, not too few conservatives in charge, then giving the right more authority only exacerbates the problem of unchecked power. We need an accurate assessment of who is censored in academia, and we need a consistent, principled effort to protect freedom on campus.

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