Being a principled defender of the free speech rights is a difficult role, particularly in today’s highly sensitive age and on our often-volatile university campuses. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) was founded in 1999 by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate to be an advocate for civil liberties in academia, and the organization has played that role energetically and often admirably. Greg Lukianoff now its leader, and he has been a robust and generally tireless supporter of free speech rights on campus.
When it comes to free speech and offense, the guiding principle of the Waltham Review is that offenses should be meaningful and intentional. The main aspiration of the Waltham Review is to never offend by accident.
It is difficult to imagine how professors and students can teach and learn without robust – perhaps even fanatical – protection of the rights of free speech and expression, and the Waltham Review supports the stated mission of FIRE. Where I might differ with FIRE would be a matter of emphasis. Facing a situation where a student is complaining that a professor has said something offensive, my impression is that FIRE prioritizes the professor’s right to say potentially offensive things over the student’s right to point out that these statements have been received as offenses.
At the Waltham Review our defense of free speech is universal. In an academic environment, students have free speech rights as well. They should also enjoy the right to point out when they feel that they have received an offense. The job of sane university administrators would be to stand up to students who demand education without exposure to potential offense, and also to stand up to professors who demand their own “safe spaces” where they can be shielded from criticism by their students.
FIRE’s Lukianoff was personally involved in last-year’s free-speech-related controversy at Yale University and that school’s Silliman college. Lukianoff was on that campus during student protests that had had been spurred by an email about Halloween costumes sent by Silliman College associate master Erika Christakis. Lukianoff filmed a video – which then went viral – of a particularly vocal student confronting house master Nicholas Christakis about racial injustice at Yale.
FIRE defended Christakis’ right to send email – even wrong-headed email. But as a defender of campus free speech rights, the Waltham Review would have also felt bound to protect – both in word and in deed – the protesting students’ rights to free speech, even when their free speech was calling for (in our view, inappropriate) restrictions on the free speech of others.
Moving on, my second concern about FIRE is that in one high-profile case where both I and FIRE were involved – the high-profile 2014 Brandeis University/Ayaan Hirsi Ali debacle – my experience of the debacle from my position as a Brandeis professor was entirely at odds with the way that the debacle was described in FIRE’s coverage. In that particular debacle, Brandeis proposed to give this vocal critic of Islam an honorary degree at graduation; following protests by students and faculty (including me) the proposed honorary degree was canceled. My impression is that the best coverage of the situation – at least from the perspective of matching the truth, as perceived from within the debacle – was in this Economist article. The Economist highlights the difference between inviting a controversial speaker to speak on your campus (free speech), and giving that speaker an honorary degree (something stronger than just respecting a speaker’s right to speak) – a distinction that FIRE appears to me to have acknowledged to an insufficient degree in their coverage of these events.
With this history in mind, I reached out the Greg Lukianoff and proposed a reciprocal interview: they would ask me four (or so) questions, and I would answer them honestly and thoughtfully. I would then ask Greg and FIRE my own four questions in reply. In this exercise I would be speaking only for myself (not the University that employs me), and also as Editor-in-Chief of the Waltham Review (America’s Choice in Nanomedia!)
Lukianoff let me know that he is too busy for this proposed exchange. His response is not totally implausible, but part of me suspects that he’s just being a wimp. Hence my question – the title of this post: Is this noted free speech defender hiding in his own “safe space” right now? The Waltham Review wonders: is Greg Lukianoff’s safe space luxurious?
(Artwork: Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569) The Drunkard being Pushed into the Pigsty 1557.)
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