The Pointlessness of Anecdotes

Greg Lukianoff is like an undertaker who, because he sees dead bodies all day long in his place of business, thinks that a plague has struck the city. It’s pointless to talk about anecdotes if we want to know how severe the problem of campus censorship is. FIRE should retain an independent polling firm to conduct a survey of college students. It should ask them whether they or their classmates have been punished by university authorities for making politically controversial statements on campus. After the poll results are in, I would be happy to continue the debate about whether a problem exists or not. In the meantime, I’m inclined to believe my students, who have no reason to lie to me, and who are closer to a representative sample of college undergraduates than the people from whom FIRE receives complaints.

Beyond that, I hope that we can agree to debate things that we disagree about, and not things we agree about. I tried to make it clear in my opening essay that I’m not going to criticize or defend students who want to restrict speech. I’m only interested in the question how campus authorities should regulate speech. I see no point in analyzing this question from a First Amendment perspective, as Catherine J. Ross does, because, first, the debate is about private universities, not public universities, and private universities are not prohibited by the First Amendment from regulating the speech of students. Second, the question is what private universities should do, not what they are legally required to do. Third, First Amendment doctrine reflects judgments, tradeoffs, and compromises by justices addressing conflicts that, 99% of the time, arose outside of campus. I don’t see how it can provide much guidance for resolving the conflicts that arise on campus.

I hope the starting point for debate will be this: how can universities best achieve their mission, which is to produce, retain, and transmit knowledge? I think we can agree, at least for purposes of this discussion, that university administrators should not try to censor research or interfere with teaching. We are talking, then, about the limited case of student living arrangements, student groups, public speakers, student protests, and the like. Many of Lukianoff and Ross’ comments extend far beyond this topic.

(For the record, while Lukianoff thinks that I support blasphemy laws, I don’t!)


Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Greg Lukianoff reviews the recent media attention to cases of speech suppression on college campuses. He agrees that they are troubling, but notes that they aren’t all that new: Political correctness and expansive speech codes were widespread in the 90s, and most of those codes never disappeared. Lukianoff traces their origins to the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which has significantly confused administrators and students about the prevailing law in these matters. Administrators in particular want expansive speech codes because such codes shield them from legal liability. Lately, though, students have begun to demand them too, in the hope of suppressing hate speech and so-called microaggressions.

Response Essays

  • Speech codes may sound menacing, but they are actually designed to enhance speech, writes Eric Posner. No classroom instructor tolerates rudeness or disruption of the learning environment, and speech codes are an outgrowth of this laudable practice. Administrators, too, are less guilty than it may seem by relying on Greg Lukianoff’s anecdotes: They have not been punishing students merely for their speech. Universities face a difficult task, in that they must accommodate highly diverse student cohorts with wildly divergent ideas, all while preserving an atmosphere of collegiality and of learning. It is inevitable that mistakes will arise. These mistakes, though, do not indicate any sinister trend about American education or public life. Would an absolutist free-speech policy do better at educating college students? That’s an empirical claim, and one that Lukianoff does not even try to substantiate.

  • Catherine J. Ross argues that the issue of free speech on college campuses is far more nuanced than either side seems willing to admit. We have become much more aware of the problem than previously, thanks in part to social media and the efforts of advocates like Greg Lukianoff, who rightly points out some troubling examples here. And yet there is room for exaggeration: Eric Posner is certainly onto something, she writes, that Lukianoff exaggerates the severity of the problem. Ross searches for evidence in both directions and concludes that a chilling effect has clearly been at work in recent years. Professors should never feel as though their students scare them; students should not be scared of one another. The crux of the matter, as she puts it, is that liberals have recently been divided: Some have kept to their traditional First Amendment commitments, while others have come to prefer equality in many instances where equality and freedom of expression appear to conflict.