Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S5. EPISODE 14
Is Free Speech Dead?
Featuring Greg Lukianoff
What’s really happening on college campuses? Is free expression on them dead, or have we reached peak cancel culture? And why have younger generations completely abandoned the principles behind free speech? Today, we’re joined by attorney Greg Lukianoff, the President and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), who shares his perspective and his hopes for the role of free speech defenders and alternative approaches to higher education.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and joined as always by my co-host for this podcast, Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And What Could Go Right? is our weekly podcast where we look at issues of today with a somewhat different sensibility, we hope, than the usual diet of dystopian outrage. And that may have its place—it gets people’s attention, it keeps you on the edge of your seat, it may engender at times political action and urgency—but it often just adds to a cacophonous dialogue where everyone is shouting and no one is listening.
So today, we’re going to really turn to this question of speech and how much of it is in fact free. How much of speech should in fact be free? What is the nature of the First Amendment in a contentious democracy that seems to be ever more entrenched in its partisan and tribal positions, and ever less able or willing to talk across those divides? And nowhere has that been more apparent than in the groves of elite academia.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So today, we’re gonna talk to Greg Lukianoff. He is an author and attorney and the president and CEO of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, where they protect and research free speech protections, particularly on college campuses, as Zachary mentioned. He’s the author of many books, most recently, The Canceling of the American Mind with co-author Rikki Schlott, and also The Coddling of the American Mind, which he wrote with Jonathan Haidt, who’s a member of The Progress Network. And he also has a few other books that you can check out if you’re interested.
ZK: Cool. So let’s do it.
Greg Lukianoff, it is a pleasure to have you with us today to talk about what it seems like everybody’s been talking about for the past months. I mean, to some degree, people have been talking about these questions of free speech and what are the limits and boundaries of it, should there be limits and boundaries of it? As you know, I’m on the board of PEN America, which has been in many ways concerned about similar issues that FIRE has been. I think there’s a lot of overlap between how PEN America has been approaching navigating issues of free speech on campus. And this is long before October 7th and long before the now infamous Trilateral Presidential Commission in Congress. I think there are also ways that PEN in particular has differed, but as a general arc of there has been an escalating issue about what the nature of free speech is, what the nature of First Amendment rights are, and how that plays out, particularly on American college campuses, and to some degree in American education classrooms, pre-collegiate as well.
So clearly, this has been an issue you’ve been looking at, thinking about for a long time. And this is one of those cases where when the deep horizon drilling disaster happened, suddenly everybody who had been a long-time expert on drilling and deep sea drilling was all over TV, but they had been doing the same thing and thinking about it forever. And to some degree, this is the moment where everybody is turning to Greg and going, okay, what’s going on here? And help us figure it out. Well, I guess this is a total softball, but it’s also just an open question of what have you learned from the past few months, if anything, that you hadn’t been already focused on before the past few months?
Greg Lukianoff (GL): Oh, man. I will say that I feel like the past couple months has been a little bit of catching up to what we’ve been doing on campus for a long time. And by we, I mean FIRE. My book, Canceling of the American Mind, came out pretty shortly after the Hamas attacks. And writing that book, I just got very depressed—even though I’ve been doing this for 22 years—about how bad the situation had gotten for freedom of inquiry, free speech on campus. And by the way, we talk about threats both from the left and the right, and the fact that both of them are happening, people who are super partisan are kind of like, oh, but the threats are coming from both sides. I’m like, no, no, that makes it worse. That doesn’t make it better. That means there’s more threats.
The only good thing I can say that probably came out post-October 7th on campus is that we have a lot fewer people thinking there’s not a problem on campus. And there was an article that I read in Politico that was talking about when some of the pro-Palestinian students were having their jobs threat, people are getting in trouble for their opinions on campus, and I’m like, really? Really? This is new. So we have seen a big uptick of pro-Palestinian students getting in trouble on campus. But one of the things I pointed out in that Atlantic article is we’re still not seeing the kind of numbers of professors getting punished or students getting punished that we saw in, say, 2020 and 2021.
EV: Okay. So in the short-term immediate past, we’ve gotten slightly better. How much worse has the situation gotten since FIRE began in the late ’90s? And I think you joined in 2001, if that’s right.
GL: Yeah, no, I mean, so I came from—I wanted to do free speech for my career. I went to law school to do First Amendment. I specialized in it. I took every class that my law school offered. I worked at the ACLU of Northern California. I did six credits on censorship during the Tudor Dynasty. And even back in 2001, I was surprised at how easy it was to get in trouble on a college campus once I had the national view of it. And I wrote a book called Unlearning Liberty back in 2012 that mostly focused a lot on bad cases I’d seen maybe in 2007, 2008, and there were a dozen cases. But the severity was concerning.
I haven’t seen anything remotely like what I’ve seen on campuses since I’d say about 2017, 2018 in terms of professors getting punished, students getting in trouble. And to be clear, when I said that 2020 and 2021 are somewhat worse, 2023 is not gonna go down as a good year for free speech on campus by any stretch of the imagination. One of the things I’ve been saying is like, no, actually to an extent, if things are normal on campus, at least since 2018, in 2023, just normal is bad at the moment. And we have a long way to go.
ZK: So one thing that struck me is—Look, one of the premises of The Progress Network, which your colleague, Jonathan Haidt, is part of, is that we, by human nature, pay a lot more attention to the dramatic and the intense and the conflict. And we don’t pay a lot of attention to things when they’re okay. Right? So there’s no history of peace. There’s no really interesting news about sunny weather. And the airspace of free speech being threatened on campus is largely occupied by certainly what went on with the Harvard, MIT, and Penn presidents.
Audio Clip: The presidents of three of the top universities in the world—Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania—accused of failing to condemn antisemitism on their campuses.
So the answer is yes, that calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard Code of Conduct. Correct. Again, it depends on the context.
The next day, Claudine Gay, president of Harvard, issuing a statement saying that calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community or any religious or ethnic group are vile. They have no place at Harvard.
Following the hearing, the House Committee on Education and the workforce has now announced a formal investigation into the three universities.
ZK: But clearly, there are many, many, many campuses in the United States that are either navigating these problems, you know, people are protesting, but it’s not leading to outrage, or there isn’t even that much protests one way or another. I guess my question is, are we paying too much attention, particularly in the past months, because it’s a juicy story, right? Universities tearing each other apart, donors enraged, front-page stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post and everybody, right? It’s a whole big deal. But we don’t pay attention to—I’m friendly with the Chancellor of Vanderbilt University. I mean, from what I can tell, there hasn’t been anything of particular note there.
GL: That’s an unusually good school for free speech, by the way. In terms of the chancellor actually understanding freedom of speech, he gets it.
ZK: But I guess the question is, are we paying too much attention to the drama and not enough attention to those places where there isn’t any?
GL: I’ll take it because I’m glad that people are paying some attention to this because it’s been getting worse below the radar for a long time. I felt like a lot of my early career was being like, I know we all thought that there was this stuff going on regarding free speech on campus in say like the late ’80s, early ’90s, but students are still getting in trouble for a lot of, forgive the expression, BS that is clearly protected that sometimes isn’t even political. It’s just someone from the PR flack from the university not liking what an RA was saying.
So things have gotten sufficiently bad that I think a serious reevaluation of the state of higher ed is in order, even if the only issue in higher ed today was that it’s been bureaucratizing too much, it’s becoming too expensive to educate a single student. And I don’t mean the cost students pay out of pocket alone. Universities are now claiming that it costs about $170,000 a year to educate a single student for a single year. And to me, that’s not sustainable. So even outside of the politics, even outside of the free speech thing, I think the way we do higher ed in the US needs some reevaluation, even just from an economic class point of view.
Now, is it true that some schools are doing way, way better than others? Absolutely. We do a campus free speech ranking every year. We’ve been able to improve it. And this year we did the largest survey of student opinion on free speech ever conducted. We have the four largest databases on professor cancellation, student cancellations, de-platforming, and evaluating all of their codes by First Amendment standards. And we wouldn’t do that if we didn’t think some schools are better than others, although the ones that actually ranked really well, in many cases, are schools that people don’t think of.
Michigan Technological University was the one that landed number one according to our data, which was a lovely surprise to us. University of Virginia, a school that’s actually pretty well-known and prestigious, it was in the top 10. University of Chicago, unsurprisingly, was 13th. But the Ivy League did terribly. I remember being up in Boston giving a presentation on my new book and having this MIT student being kind of like, it can’t really be that the elite schools are worse than say the big state schools. I’m really sorry to say this, but I’ve been doing this 22 years. And there is no question that the elite schools have a bigger free speech problem than a lot of these big state schools.
And I honestly think—I see a lot of this from a class perspective. One of the reasons why some of the big state schools don’t have quite as many issues is because they are more class-diverse. When you have that kind of actual, literal numeric diversity, but also class diversity, it make it easier to get away from the people who wanna cancel, it forces a little bit greater tolerance.
The problems I’m seeing in the Ivy League are quite pronounced. I do wanna do one shout-out for one Ivy League school, though, that I think’s doing better than most of the rest. And that’s Dartmouth under its new president, Sian Beilock. She actually wrote a bestseller called Choke. What they’ve been doing is they’ve been doing the hard work of having dialogue specifically about issues including the Palestine-Israel conflict since before the crisis happened. And that’s one of the reasons why I think you haven’t been seeing a lot of the shocking scenes that you’ve seen at, say, Harvard, for example.
ZK: Yeah, the one time I taught modern Middle East history, I taught at Dartmouth as assistant professor. And of course that was longer ago than I care to remember, but I remember there being zero issues about talking about anything. So maybe that’s more embedded in the DNA there than it was at Harvard.
EV: We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
Greg, I have a two-part question for you. First part being since you do have this nationwide data, how would you do the breakdown as far as the percent of schools that are green light from FIRE, the percentage that are yellow light, the percentage that are red light? And if the majority of the ones that are red light, so to speak, are these elite institutions, Ivy League institutions, I think the blunt way to put this question is, how much should we care? [laughs]
GL: We should care. This is why we should care. We should care for a reason that I actually deeply present, and I say this as someone who went to Stanford Law School, felt very honored to get into a place like that, but at the same time always resented the fact that there was an entire class of people that suddenly it was like I was a real human being. [laughs] Like, oh, you went to a fancy, oh, now you exist. Okay, this is messed up because there are plenty of people at home who are just as smart as the people at school. So we societally give way too much to elite colleges in the United States. There’s a small democratic tradition of being anti-elitist to a degree, but I feel like, particularly since the first tech boom, the premium we place on going to fancy schools is way out of touch with how much better they actually are.
So the extent to which corporations, the richest people in the country, even political leaders of both sides of the fence went to Yale, Harvard, Princeton, that’s the troubling trend to me. I would much prefer to see more students go to Indiana State University or state schools in California than how much we actually take from Harvards and the Yales. So you have to care about these giant, super wealthy mega corporations because they are disproportionately influential in the United States to a level of which I think is, frankly, unhealthy. So when people were actually starting to say, I’m not gonna hire some of these students who signed on to pro-Palestinian letters from Harvard, I basically had two points. One, that’s cancel culture. If you’re saying that I’m not gonna hire someone ’cause of their political opinion, I’m concerned about that. If the end result, however, is that we don’t hire as much from the fanciest schools in the country, I don’t think that would be an entirely bad thing.
ZK: You know, there’s been one troubling—and I don’t know to what degree it’s anecdotal—trend of students at many campuses being much less supportive of free speech rights. I don’t know how much that’s been played up. I mean, clearly it’s been easy to find polling and interviewing of students who in general support shouting down or disinviting or, in one way or another, not allowing people to speak whose views they find reprehensible. And that’s, again, true on the left and the right, although perhaps a little more true on the left of the pure act of censorship. But again, I’m not sure that’s accurate or if it’s been overplayed.
And I don’t know, of course, ’cause FIRE wasn’t around, PEN America’s been around for a long time, but it wasn’t really focused on free speech and campus as a thing, let’s say, in the ’60s and ’70s. Clearly, those were times when people shut speakers down with abandon, barricaded buildings, occupied classrooms. I guess I wonder how much there has been a student cohort at any given time that was idealistically like pro-free speech, particularly speech that they abhor, right? Because that’s the test of all of it. That’s the hard part of free speech. It’s not I wouldn’t have the right to say what I think, it’s I will defend the right of someone whose views I find abhorrent to say what they need to say.
GL: Yeah. There’s really an interesting—and it’s a good point that there were certainly shout-downs in the late ’60s, early ’70s, not really at elite law schools, by the way though. That’s actually something that people are kinda like, oh, that always happened. No, no, that, that one didn’t happen. This wasn’t happening at Stanfords and Yales. Now people point out the Shockley case at Harvard, but that’s undergraduate. So there is something quite unusual about the incidents we saw at Yale and Stanford in the past year. So there’s not perfect comparisons for the data, but when you look at appreciation for freedom of speech as a value among college students in college, you really do see a very strongly pro-free speech, no exceptions, and that it has gotten worse since then. Sometimes you’re comparing survey questions that are not identical, but overall, as the opinion of freedom of speech gotten worse on campus, but also on the left. Yeah.
And this is something that we saw from our own polling because we used to be the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, but then in 2022, we became the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. We tripled the size of our litigation. We try to grow our network to be about a million people, and it looks like we’re gonna well exceed that. And from our doing our polling, it turns out—and this probably won’t be too surprising to a lot of listeners—that on the left, and I still consider myself on the left, 45 and up, we’re still great on free speech, and 30 and below, they don’t actually know that much about it. But you do see a little bit more ambivalence around offensive speech and that kind of stuff, more issues with regards to more clear-cut discomfort among millennials, frankly.
EV: I’m gonna validate that anecdotally as the millennial on this podcast at the moment. [laughs] So, Greg, I wanted to ask you about something that I saw on your Twitter, and it was just a short video clip. And I would love to hear you dig into it a little bit more. You were talking about the sort of Steven Pinker-inspired, and this is not all of what we do at The Progress Network but part of it, the idea that things are getting better, and because things are getting better, what you said, there’s a small subset of things that are going to get worse. I think that’s tied into this millennial point that you just made. But yeah, just flesh that out for me because I’m curious if that’s just like a first world problems thing or something else.
GL: Well, I wrote a short book in 2014 when we first started seeing this trend. And I always point this out, that prior to say 2013, the students were great on free speech. They got it better than professors, they got it better than administrators by a lot. And it was really unsubtle. It was really quite dramatic around the end of 2013, 2014, seeing students suddenly being the ones demanding the de-platforming, the new speech codes. And this wasn’t historically unprecedented. You saw this in the ’80s and ’90s, but we hadn’t really seen this since say the early ’90s.
And in Freedom from Speech, I put something down that I actually thought was kind of obvious but it didn’t occur to me that people hadn’t been talking about this, is that essentially, I called it in that book problems of comfort, and then in Coddling of the American Mind, we called it problems of progress, to take it from two different angles. And it explained it quite well, which is the idea that, yes, I’m not denying that I’d rather be alive today than a hundred years ago by a lot, or, you know, honestly, I kind of miss the ’90s sometimes, but that’s very Gen X of me. But in terms of problems, that progress in a lot of ways can be defined by having a less physically challenging life, having a more emotionally serene life, being able to live in communities that reflect your values, all of these kind of things that people were talking about from the post-materialist society idea, that in the future, we’re gonna be able to live in communities that reflect our values and we’ll prioritize that. And it all sounds lovely until you start thinking about the psychological ramifications of that.
That means that you’re gonna have less exposure to people you disagree with, which is just a fact of the physical environment we live in. The Big Sort example that people go to is that we increasingly live in neighborhoods that are more isolated from each other in terms of both politics and economic class. So that’s a problem. And so that part kind of pans out. And of course, we can surround ourselves now with more media than we can consume that reflects our worldview back to us. But you can call a lot of that progress.
So I tried to explain in Freedom from Speech why there are these categories of things that will get worse as other things get better. And all of these things are gonna create a generation of people who are less comfortable with the difficulty of freedom of speech. And for that matter, the difficulty of things like democratic deliberation to talking to people you hate and don’t respect, or, actually, in some cases, don’t actually know what they think, but you think you know what they think. So I think that free speech is going to be increasingly under threat by a more comfortable and affluent society.
ZK: Yeah. And you’ve been quite good about warning that in the backlash to the way in which particularly the elite universities managed Hamas, Israel, Palestine, that the tendency to move to restrict more speech is the risk here, right? So certain types of speech were found to be unacceptable, and now we’re gonna try to broaden the spectrum of what is unacceptable rather than dial back and basically say, you know, most speech in most circumstances that does not and cannot be shown to lead to action is acceptable. That doesn’t mean it’s morally acceptable, right? It means we need to foster this climate of how do you deal with ideas that you find abhorrent.
So I guess my question then is—and I really am curious ’cause I’m sure you’ve thought about this and I’ve thought about this a lot—was there a way at those now infamous hearings where Elise Stefanik proposed to these three presidents the question of, would calling for genocide fall into the bullying or harassment of your school’s codes? Was there a way to answer that question? Meaning, given how these universities have construed bullying and harassment and danced around free speech and censorship and First Amendment in ways that are really pretzel-like, was there any way, given that legacy, that that question could have been answered correctly and honorably, or were they kind of hoist literally on their own years of petard formation? I don’t think I’ve ever said hoist on years of petard formation. I probably shouldn’t say it, but you know.
GL: Petard formation, I love it. I think in a lot of cases, it was already kind of too late by the time they were entering that hearing. Unsurprisingly, the school that had actually been comparatively sort of the best on it, MIT, was the one that I think came off looking the best of the schools. But Harvard’s been miserable. Penn’s been terrible. I mean, in this ranking that I explained, Harvard got a negative score. They were dead last and right above them was University of Pennsylvania, second to last. By the way, University of South Carolina was third from last. So a lot of times when people come in sort of assuming that they know exactly how these cases are gonna fall down, that’s not the way data works. There are lovely and interesting, fascinating little surprises in there. So I think that they came in wanting to argue for the free speech rights of the pro-Palestinian students, but didn’t have the credibility to actually sound—to be taken seriously, and they kind of earned that, unfortunately.
Do I think they could have done a better job of answering the question? Oh, goodness, yes. No, absolutely. And I mean, people will point out, and myself among them, is that technically, they’re correct. And people talk about calls to genocide, mostly you’re talking about people shouting intifada or saying from the river to the sea, Palestine should be free. And from a First Amendment perspective, are those statements by themselves protected? Well, I mean, it’s kind of an, of course they are. And their argument that essentially you need more context is, I say, technically correct, partially because I’ve been working on campuses for such a long time. Context is almost a meaningless word in a lot of these departments. People will always argue, oh, you need context as a way of just shutting you off to some other fool’s errand. And oftentimes what they’re talking about context are just arguments in their own favor.
Audio Clip: Ms. Magill, at Penn, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct, yes or no?
If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment, yes.
I am asking specifically calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?
If it is directed and severe or pervasive, it is harassment.
So the answer is yes?
It is a context-dependent decision, Congresswoman.
It’s a context-dependent decision, that’s your testimony today? Calling for the genocide of Jews is depending upon the context, that is not bullying or harassment? This is the easiest question to answer yes, Ms. Magill.
GL: I think if they’d had better command of the philosophy around freedom of speech, around the big idea of freedom of inquiry, they could have argued in a more compelling way. I think that probably a little more time spent with genuine sympathy for the students on campus wouldn’t have hurt. I have no problem saying, I’m not Jewish myself, but there being an antisemitism problem on some of these campuses, yeah, I don’t deny that at all. I’ve watched this and I came into this with a little bit of initial skepticism that essentially they’re talking about people being critical of Israel. Been about 10 years now. I’m like, no, no, no, some of these people are antisemites and given some of the generalizations I hear. And so I basically feel like in some ways, it was too late, but they certainly could have done a better job.
EV: Greg. So I’m interested to hear. I’m definitely someone that very much so, like I don’t—if someone talks to me about cancel culture, I definitely think cancel culture exists. I have similar questions to Zachary about how pervasive all of this is on campus, which is why I should go look at your dataset. I’m curious to hear like some of the daily bread that you deal with, the stories of what’s going on on campuses that don’t break into the major media that have really convinced you.
GL: Oh, yeah. I mean, the scale of the cases is probably—I know the individual stories are what gets people’s attention. But it was definitely so clearly increasing throughout my career and particularly accelerating in 2017 that we’re like, we were confident if we start polling about this, it’s going to at least partially reflect what we’ve actually seen. And indeed, it has. When we ask professors if they’ve been punished or threatened with punishment for their academic freedom—and that includes what they teach, what they publish, and what they say in class—1 in 6 said that they had, and I’ve gotten a couple people I guess who don’t know history very well, kinda like, oh, that’s not that bad. I’m like, that’s insane. You’re talking about tens of thousands of professors.
We did the same thing with students this past fall, and we found about 10%, 1 in 10, and that’s over a million students. There’s nothing even vaguely close to that in history. As far as cases that we know about, we talk about this in Canceling of the American Mind, we designate cancel culture as beginning around 2014 when we noticed something different happening. More students were getting together, more administrators were getting together and signing petitions against their own professors. That really accelerated in 2017. That’s one of the reasons why keep on pointing to 2017. The seeds were apparent in 2014, and we found well over a thousand attempts to get professors punished and overwhelmingly concentrated in the top 10 schools in the country. And about 80 of the top 200 schools in the country. More than half of the cases that we’re familiar with are concentrated in those about 100 schools all towards the top. And about two-thirds of those more than 1,000 professors were punished in some way, and almost 200 of them were punished. And that was as of last July, by the way.
To put that in perspective, the standard number for professors fired during the Red Scare, there was a massive study done at the end of the Red Scare, they found about 63 professors fired for either being communist or having communist beliefs with an additional almost 40 of them being punished for belief overall. And so that’s about 100. So you’re talking about a situation where of the cases that we already know about, you’re talking about twice the number of professors fired. And also, as I just published in Reason Magazine, we have way too many conformity-inducing mechanisms throughout the entire academic process, whereas back during the Red Scare, the law wasn’t even clear that you couldn’t fire a professor for being communist. A lot of deans who fired professors were like, yeah, these guys are ideologues. And of course, the law only became clear right at the end of the Red Scare, which is one of the reasons why, by the way, people count, the Red Scare as ending in 1957. That’s because Sweezy v. New Hampshire happened in 1957, which is the first case really establishing academic freedom.
So in terms of the data, it’s amazing that you’re able to find this many professors in the first place given how politically homogenous the situation is on campus and given how many ways they can get away with sort of punishing professors without having to go as drastically as firing them.
EV: We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
ZK: I’m curious about something. You earlier said you consider yourself on the left. How do you account for the fact that so many people on the left think that FIRE is so far on the right?
GL: I have to after a while not give a damn about that anymore because it’s one of those things where I spent 10 years writing for The Huffington Post trying to convince the left that there’s a problem on campus. And I tried to use cases that were highly sympathetic to the left because we have plenty of examples. And I say this sometimes to people on the left. It’s like, listen, if all you wanna do is help us out with the cases that agree with your politics, great. Help us out with those cases because there’s plenty of them, by the way. I don’t think that’s particularly principled, but okay. We’ll take the help on the ones you agree with us on. The staff itself leans more to the left than to the right. The cases we take, people will constantly do this on social media, become like, where was FIRE on this case? And it’s like, we’re literally quoted in the article you just sent around calling us out.
There is such a resistance to the idea of cancel culture is real, that there’s a free speech problem on campus, that there are just some people that you can’t reach. And part of me has to just be like, okay, all we can do is be perfectly consistent on this, and if you’re not paying attention, I can’t really care. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t stop trying and reaching out. And this is something that I wrote about recently. I call this fascocasting, that essentially, oh, I don’t like your opinion. You’re right-wing. Bing. This is something that I did back in law school back in ’97, and it was a habit that was definitely much more among elites. When I got to a place like Stanford, I realized that people would warn me, that thinker’s conservative and that worked on me because I’d be like, then I’m not gonna read their book because those are bad people. How childish that way of thinking about things was something that I feel deeply ashamed of later. There are entire authors I didn’t read because people had claimed they’re right wing, including people like Camille Paglia, who I’m kind of like, Camille Paglia is a lot of things, but easy to define politically is not among them. She’s her own person to say the least. But also people like Thomas Sowell, who is conservative, but nonetheless, I think actually has some valuable insights.
And that tactic has worked so well that now you see people on campuses, and including scholars who should know better, where the entire substance of their scholarly articles is basically being like, well, those are right-wingers. And I’m like, okay, first of all, no, a lot of these people you’re talking about actually aren’t. I read a recent one that just blew me away where the claim was that not only are these guys right-wingers, they are neo-confederates and their dupes include The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union because they admit that there’s some kind of speech problem. Like, okay, these are just insults in the form of a scholarly article that’s relying on a childish tactic of labeling something a bad name then you don’t have to think about it anymore.
So I’ve been increasingly calling this out because it’s one of these things where it’s kind of like, no, I’m not actually conservative, I’m not a fan of Trump, but I hate having to say that because what if I was? Does that suddenly magically mean that anything I said doesn’t count? And the answer seems to be implicitly, kinda. This is unworthy of people who think of themselves as smart. So we have to stop this fascocasting kind of thing where we just kind of like, oh, I really don’t want people to listen to you, so now you’re a fascist.
ZK: I wrote an article, I think, I don’t remember when, I think it was 2017. And the headline was something like, if Trump says it, does that mean it’s not true?
EV: You might remember the last podcast that we recorded together. I said something that used language, borrowed from the right, and I stopped myself mid-sentence. And I was like, I can’t say that, people are gonna think I’m secretly a conservative. And I think that we edited that out. It’s probably not gonna appear in the podcast, but later, I was like, and so what if I was a conservative? [laughs] Who cares really?
ZK: Exactly. But there’s this voice of—And look, the point about the Trump thing was, look, it’s almost impossible for someone in a position of influence and authority to be wrong and horrible about everything. I mean, it’s possible, right? But to disregard, to dismiss it, a priori—he’s on the right, he’s on the left, she’s on the wherever—and therefore, whatever follows has zero substance. This was an issue with some of the accusations about Claudine Gay and the degree to which there was a very concerted campaign by someone who very much defined themselves, Christopher Rufo, as a right-wing warrior, but at the same time, for the facts, for the facts. Now, how you construe those and what context—there’s that word again—you place them in, I guess does matter greatly depending on where you sit politically. I don’t know that that’s a new thing, by the way, today.
GL: Oh, no.
ZK: You extend a level of trust to members of your tribe. You extend a level of distrust to those who you feel, as anthropologists would say, are exogenous, right? They’re not part of the us, they’re the them, and if they’re the them, then whatever they say is immediately treated with suspicion. So I don’t think we’re gonna change that part of human nature anytime soon, but it is definitely worth, as you have done, and as I think FIRE does, others, to call that out.
GL: Yeah. And it should at least be beneath scholars and intellectual, essentially, the idea that I can magically label something—and I have seen this directed more, again, against the ACLU and The New York Times ’cause it’s kinda like, no, that’s a symptom of this tactic working so well that people are like, well why don’t I try it on groups that nobody thinks are actually fascist. Let’s see if that works. And we’ve created a situation where people are so afraid of being called this bad name. And by the way, in Canceling the American Mind, we point out that the right does this as well. I’ve watched very conservative people be labeled woke or liberal or like whatever. And of course, FIRE, since we do our job, we get called both and we take pride in being called both, but also, these are just dispersions [inaudible]
EV: So the fact that you’re following a principle must make for a difficult online existence, I imagine.
GL: Yeah. I mean, after a while people start getting it to a—well, at least some people start getting it. I do remember, but as far as—I have a funny story, actually, about being principled that was almost adorable in its stupidity. As I went on the Hannity & Colmes, which was a Fox News show, which had a goofy liberal versus Sean Hannity.
ZK: Poor Colmes. I mean, he is now the dearly departed, but it’s like he was wearing a constant sign saying “kick me”.
GL: Yeah, no. And this was a case where we were defending the free speech rights of Ward Churchill, a guy who did say legitimately some offensive stuff, basically saying the victims of 9/11 were little Eichmanns and therefore had it coming. But also, students who decided to protest Ward Churchill by using actual Churchill quotes all over campus—this was DePaul University in Chicago—where they put up actual quotes from him, which were sometimes really offensive. And the university couldn’t believe they were actually Ward Churchill quotes. And so they passed a new policy against propaganda at DePaul. And I was there to defend both the right of Ward Churchill to say what he said and the right to protest Ward Churchill. And they didn’t get it. They were kind of like, well, whose side are you on on this? It’s like, we’re on free speech’s side, man. [laughs] It’s like, are you on Churchill’s side or not?
ZK: All right. Final question for you. Hard not to get wizened and bitter over 20 years of fighting these fights.
GL: Oh, yeah.
ZK: Particularly over the past few months. Is this like a lemonade out of lemons moment? Is this a watershed in such that you can actually see some loosening of this ossified contest? Or do you just think it’s gonna be one more chapter in an endless grind?
GL: I think things are probably gonna get worse before they get better. I can’t say I’m going into 2024 with a great deal of optimism about the overall picture, but I definitely think people are gonna need their reliable free speech defenders in this upcoming, forgive the expression, shitshow of a year that we’re about to see. But I do think there are a lot more people taking seriously the idea that we have to figure out—and I mean, again, to come back to class issues—cheaper, more rigorous alternatives to the way we currently do higher education. And I also think that there are other schools that are really gonna distinguish themselves by being like, you know what? This is not a sustainable path we’re on. I’m gonna really recommit to being a forum, to being a place that’s about the search for truth, about freedom of inquiry. And I can see some schools already trying to make a name for themselves doing that, and that gives me some hope.
I wrote something on my Substack, the eternally radical idea called The Silver Spoon Rule. I have been amazed, and I apply this to elite higher education in the United States, particularly Harvard, the unwillingness to admit that they ever have done anything wrong in some aspects of elite higher education, it’s always someone else’s fault in this one. I think that some of these schools would do well to be like, hmm, maybe the problem is me.
EV: Poor Harvard. Everyone’s always picking on them. [laughs]
GL: [laughs] I know. And they only have like $60 billion in the bank. Those poor little deers.
ZK: Well, thank you so much, Greg, for the conversation. Obviously, this is gonna be an evergreen issue, so maybe we will continue it and see if your it’s gonna get worse before it gets better view is—we’ll circle back in a year and see if that’s been the case, but—
GL: I hope to be wrong. Well, actually, I hope it gets better right away. [laughs]
ZK: Yes. I gather that one is not doing the work you’re doing with the expectation or desire that things get worse. So thank you again, and we will keep focusing on these issues as I’m sure you will.
GL: Great seeing you, Zach, and nice to meet you, Emma.
EV: Nice to meet you too, Greg. Thank you.
EV: What’s funny about Greg is that despite the dire straits that he sees college campuses in, is that I get the impression that he really enjoys his work, cheerful character. I’m glad that he clarified fascocasting as like a magic spell wand thing. People listening to the audio might not have caught that, but he was pretending à la Harry Potter to mark someone as a Voldemort supporter, as a conservative, because I had thought of it as casting someone in the mold. I definitely grew up in a very bubbled liberal environment, and for a long time, the worst thing that you could accuse someone of is being a crypto-conservative or a crypto-fascist nowadays.
ZK: I am aware of how many people, and granted this is a rarefied orbit, but let’s say elite-educated East Coast people who care about these things and follow them, either in academia or in journalism, do find a lot of the work that FIRE does really objectionable because often they are defending people whose ideas, many people on the left find abhorrent. And it’s hard to separate out the disdain and dislike for the ideas from the censorship that then comes with that disdain and dislike. Personally, I’m sure many people who are listening to this haven’t heard of FIRE and don’t know the work that’s being done. These are advocates within an area that affects many people, but the actual organizations that spend 24/7 dealing with them are not the most prominent. And that’s probably a good thing, but it’s very difficult for a lot of people to separate the defense of a principle from the defense of the ideas.
And that, in fact, is what’s so challenging about these issues of free speech, in that you honestly can, at least I believe one honestly can, and I believe in many ways the whole point of the First Amendment and one of the things that makes American democracy unusually resilient has been a willingness, not unchallenged, but a willingness to tolerate ideas that you find objectionable, either because you don’t have the ability or the power to silence them. I mean, I think there’s too much romanticizing of early America as this bastion of freedom of religion when in many respects it’s not that the early colonists pre-revolution were these icons of religious toleration as much as they were unable to silence with violence and force other sects and other views just because of the fragmentation of the colonies. So it was a tolerance born out of necessity, not born out of, oh, I so respect the fact that you don’t follow the same creed or the same idea.
But the United States I think has been unusually potent because of the fluidity of ideas and thought and remains so. I’m sure we’ll get into this later in the season. And certainly, something to keep in mind throughout 2024, that one of the things that I think does in fact inoculate American society against the fears against the authoritarianism that so many people are fearful of is just the sheer noise and ability of people to speak, often angrily, often passionately, often in ways that other people hate, and do so without it all descending into chaos and violence. But that requires defending speech you don’t like. And to be able to do so without them being accused of that defense is an endorsement, right?
EV: Yeah. And I think that Greg is right too, that people my age and younger really don’t have a good grasp on why free speech is worth defending and actually what the principle is. You can go through what the First Amendment says in law school, but I certainly did not have an education about all of that before I went for a journalism degree in university. And if you didn’t happen to go in that direction, it’s just not something that’s on your mind. So I’ve definitely had conversations with friends where I feel like I’m espousing basic free speech principles and they’re like, oh, that does kind of make sense, first time I heard of that. And you’re like [laughs] okay. So I kind of wish maybe we should have asked Greg to give his full-throated impassioned speech about it. People can find that online, I’m sure.
ZK: All right. Well, more speech is better. It has been said that the antidote to speech you dislike is more speech, not less speech. And it’s a hard thing to defend because people often conclude that if you are defending speech that they, or even you, find morally abhorrent, you are de facto endorsing the content and not the principle of speech. And that’s a hard one. It’s always gonna be a hard one. We didn’t really get into, okay, what are the limits of that? What are the limits of hate speech that are acceptable? And I think there are legitimate boundaries that we can at least inculcate in ourselves about how you speak and we should all strive to speak more respectfully and not less and more calmly and not more agitatedly and hysterically and with less outrage, blah, blah, all the stuff that we’re trying to do in this podcast. But those principles are difficult. I mean, they really are. And we’re seeing just how difficult they are in the world today.
EV: So thanks, everyone for listening to the conversation. Wherever you are on the spectrum of you think that there’s a intense threat facing college campuses, you think that it doesn’t exist, or it’s overstated, I encourage everyone to go onto the FIRE website and take a look at that dataset that Greg was talking about, about universities across the country. And I’m sure we are going to keep talking about this, particularly when it breaks into major media outlets like with Claudine Gay and other well-known presidents of elite universities. So it’s not over, but hopefully heading in a more positive direction.
ZK: And certainly, 2024, as Greg indicated, it’s gonna be quite the year for speech, much of speech that none of us want to hear, but all of us should defend.
EV: The speech that no one wants to hear. [laughs].
ZK: That’s right.
EV: That’s right. So [laughs] we’ll see everyone next week.
What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
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