The Good Fight
Greg Lukianoff on How to Build a Culture of Free Speech

Greg Lukianoff on How to Build a Culture of Free Speech

Yascha Mounk and Greg Lukianoff discuss countering threats to free expression, in the courts and the classroom.

Persuasion has now been continuously publishing content for over three years, and our team will be taking a two-week break. We’ll resume publication of both new articles and the Good Fight podcast after Labor Day on September 4th. Wishing everyone a restful summer until then — The Persuasion Team

Greg Lukianoff is president of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and the co-author, with Jonathan Haidt, of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Lukianoff is also co-author of the forthcoming The Canceling of the American Mind: Cancel Culture Undermines Trust and Threatens Us All—But There Is a Solution.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Greg Lukianoff discuss the state of free speech culture on America’s campuses and in society more broadly; FIRE’s progress litigating against coercive legislation in Florida and elsewhere; and the need to foster cultural habits that uphold individual expression.

The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: You lead an organization called The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). Why do you think that the threat to our ability to speak freely in the public sphere is so severe at the moment? And where does that threat come from?

Greg Lukianoff: We were founded in 1999 with a special focus on academic freedom and free speech on campus, where some of the most important battles have been fought for decades. But we noticed that things have gotten so bad in 2020, and beyond campus, but also in the corporate world, in journalism, in K-12. Campuses will remain central to what we do, of course, but we knew that we had to litigate, fight in K through 12, and fight local and state legislatures because the culture war had gotten so much worse. And we saw, obviously, threats from both the right and the left. But worse than that was that the bipartisan consensus on the value of freedom of speech tanked and very quickly over the course of about the last decade. I still consider myself a political liberal (I don't mean like a classical liberal, I mean, left liberal). Growing up, it would be weird to not be incredibly radical on freedom of speech if you consider yourself a Democrat or on the left. And that really started to erode in the ‘90s, particularly on campus. 

Meanwhile, on the right, there was a libertarian aspect to the American right for most of my life—certainly not fully fulfilled, but it meant that you could usually find at least some Republicans who are pretty good on free speech. All of that is falling by the wayside. All things are fair in this existential battle, and free speech has been one of the main casualties. If you defend free speech, you're used to people saying this: that they agree with freedom of speech, and then they'll say, but they have their exception. I can live with that. That's human nature. Even though I'm expansive in my views on freedom of speech, I don't expect everybody else to be. What started to change was that the criticism went from “this is a good principle at its core, but we disagree on how it's enforced” to something more like “free speech itself is oppressive, is the problem, it maximizes power.” Of course, powerful people have always been protected in human history—you only need free speech for the expression of unpopular views in a democracy.

In The Canceling of the American Mind, I come up with what I consider to be a very straightforward definition of canceled culture, which also comports with my experience watching this happen, which is very simply the the large uptick, after 2014, of people getting professionally sanctioned, losing their jobs, being expelled for what would be normally considered protected expression under the First Amendment.

Mounk: Let's go into that for a moment. One of the arguments that I often hear from people who dismiss free speech is that those of us who stand up for free speech are really just covert conservatives who are trying to somehow further a right-wing agenda or just want to be able to say terrible things about their fellow citizens without consequence.

What do you consider an expression of a politically protected view, versus misconduct or harassment?

Lukianoff: One of the reasons why I tried to tie our definition of cancel culture into First Amendment law itself is not because we're talking about things that are strictly matters of law, but because there's lots of wisdom baked into the way we do First Amendment law. A professor calling out or insulting a student on the basis of their race—that would from the very beginning be considered a kind of unprofessional conduct that could get you in trouble. But also it was set under the paradigm of racial harassment, which is a pattern of discriminatory behavior directed at an individual that is severe and outrageous. 

I think that the line drawing gets a great deal easier when you're able to connect it to some very reasonable standards that exist under the First Amendment. The easiest kind of questions, for us, are when someone is simply expressing an opinion or a hypothesis, or publishing a research paper. That's most of what we see at FIRE; people getting in trouble for what they say, expressing an opinion online or for publishing research. You get very used to the idea that someone will publish an article and then it will be roundly criticized and there'll be responses to it. That the article itself gets retracted has been happening at a distressing rate. For example, the targeting of Carole Hooven at Harvard, for arguing that biological sex exists, was not something that I would have expected to see 10 years ago. We had a case at the University of California, San Diego, where a professor talked about the Chinese filler word “nega,” and he was facing punishment after students thought that word sounded too much like the American n-word. And we see cases like this routinely. Another example of what we would consider worrisome behavior was what happened at Stanford, where students got together to disrupt a Trump-appointed, very conservative, Fifth Circuit judge at Stanford.

Mounk: One argument that critics of free speech like Stanley Fish would make is that if you have to draw a line somewhere, then, by definition, it is arbitrary, and it is simply expressing the interests of the powerful. The person who decides where that line is is simply enshrining the norms which powerful people have an interest in perpetuating. 

Now, personally, I don't buy this argument. But I'd love to hear you explaining as clearly as possible why you think that that kind of deconstructionist view about distinguishing between legitimate free speech and things that would, for example, be harassing behavior in the classroom, is not arbitrary?

Lukianoff: What you're referring to is Stanley Fish’s, I think 1993 [sic—1994] book There's No Such Thing As Free Speech: And It's a Good Thing, Too, which to be frank is kind of an embarrassing book to read, because it's saying, essentially, that there are exceptions to freedom of speech (those are arbitrary and are going to be in the interest of people in power), and therefore since there is no absolute free speech then, therefore, it doesn't exist, and let's replace it with other norms. It's not a good argument. This is stuff you learn within the first day of taking your First Amendment class, the idea that threats aren't protected, the idea that harassment isn't protected, the idea that defamation isn't protected. But there are good rationales for why all of these things are not protected. And sometimes it required some serious judicial scrutiny to figure out what those parameters are. But then you get to basic principles, like the most clearly protected form of freedom of speech being the mere expression of opinion.

Mounk: It seems to me that there's a philosophical problem and a political problem with that argument. The philosophical problem is that it looks at something like what philosophers call the “sorites paradox” and misinterprets its meaning. Famously, and the ancient Greeks recognized this, it's very hard to know when somebody goes from having a full head of hair to being bald; if you keep removing one hair at a time, it's sort of arbitrary to decide where exactly the line falls between somebody having a full head of hair and being bald, because any one hair doesn't seem to make a difference. But it would be a very strange inference to make that there are no people with a full head of hair and no people who are bald.

Lukianoff: I did want to address one point as well: a general principle that has been badly misrepresented to a generation of young people comes from the fact that they're not very comfortable with the fact that higher education is a powerful, influential environment that tends to have a supermajority of political homogeneity. And this politely gets ignored, but it allows for a situation where you can make this argument that freedom of speech is just the argument of the powerful. And I have to do this remedial lesson to explain the history of power and its relationship to freedom of speech.

Before there were democracies, or during the period when they were very few, the rich and powerful tended to do pretty well. Generally, money and power can protect itself. But by the time you get to democracies, money, wealth, and power can still protect itself. But then also the people of the majority, who vote, are also powerful, and the powerful are still powerful. It's only in a circumstance in which you are unpopular with the elites who run the society or you're unpopular with the majority (or, worst of all, if you're in trouble with both) that you need the protections of freedom of speech. And that's one of the reasons why it's not a coincidence that, despite efforts to start a women's rights movement going back to the 19th century or a civil rights movement going back to the 19th century or a gay rights movement going back decades before it actually happened, they weren't able to take off until you started having a strong interpretation of the First Amendment right of freedom of speech. But on campus, you wouldn't know that. You would actually think that free speech is the argument of the powerful. And to me, that's partially because higher education isn't comfortable with admitting its own incredible wealth and influence.

Mounk: You would have to hold a very strange set of views to think that the United States is so deeply and profoundly unjust, and the powerful so oppressive, and, yet, there is also going to be a regime of limits on speech that somehow happens to be in assistance of the people who are standing up against that oppression.

If you genuinely believe that America is such an unjust place, then you have all the more reason to embrace free speech so that these targeted groups are able to make their voices heard. As you've pointed out, they have been able to do that for many decades thanks to the First Amendment, resulting in great improvements for gay rights, for the rights of ethnic minorities, and for the rights of women in this country.

Lukianoff: What’s distressed to a lot of us is that the trend on campus seems to be to give power more power. Because locally, we think we can trust power to do right by minority interests. And that's not true of the rest of the world. It's barely even true on campus. Because locally on campus, a lot of times the activist position is locally popular. But when you have unpopular positions on campus, that's an entirely different story. One of the things that is going to be very interesting in the new book is that we talk about the data that we've been able to put together at FIRE about professor cancellations (we're still working on student data—that's a huge undertaking). But looking into the number of professors who have lost their jobs since 2014 is incredibly striking. Just to give some context, when I started, all the cases were about 9/11. All the cases were overwhelmingly coming from the right. My first was defending a guy in New Mexico who said in class, “Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon has my vote.” And he wasn't willing to fight, and he lost that case, even though FIRE fought very hard on his behalf. 9/11 did lead to a real number of people being fired—about five professors.

Looking back at the number of cases that we've seen since the beginning of cancel culture, we're at the stage where, by the time the book comes out, there would probably be about one thousand examples of attempts to get professors fired—about 60% of those result in professors being punished in some way, and I think around 180 result in professors being fired. Now, the number of professors who were fired during the Red Scare from 1947 to 1957 was about 100-250 by the best estimates that we could find. 1957, that end date, was the first case of established academic freedom that was protected by the First Amendment and that law evolved from 1957 to 1973. So there's nothing like this going on where we can find a historical record of this kind of scale, of professors being one chased out by students. That's a major change. The Red Scare was mostly about outside forces trying to get rid of professors, having their fellow professors signing petitions against them. When people bristle at this or want to pretend this isn't happening, it's always interesting to see how they react when I point out, by the way, that about 40% of those are from the right: organizations like Turning Point USA, for example, or Fox News, getting people together to petition for professors being fired for saying offensive things. And these are all cases that FIRE defends, oftentimes successfully. Because a substantial chunk of it actually comes from the right. It actually means the situation is worse for the production of knowledge, because professors are getting it every which way.

Mounk: I want to understand a little bit about people's experience with the danger of being fired and I'd love to know a little bit more about that 40% figure because my basic theory of how this happens, and there obviously are always exceptions, is that you can only be put under pressure from the part of the political spectrum that is predominant in your social or professional milieu. When I have offended people who support Donald Trump, I may have gotten some really nasty emails in my inbox, but I never felt in any kind of way professionally threatened. If anything, it felt like something that awards me social status in my university or my professional setting, right? “These terrible Trumpists are going after me—I must be doing something right!” It is when I offend people who are more likely to be my colleagues, who are probably on the left, that I wondered “Is this getting into an area where I have to be worried about my job?” 

So if you're teaching at an Ivy League university or a small, selective liberal arts college, you really don't have to worry about cancellation from the right—you have to worry about the chance of cancellation from the left. But if you're teaching at a religious college or at a state university in Texas, Missouri or some other deep red state, then you do have to be worried about these attempts of cancellation from the right, but perhaps you don't have to worry as much about offending the left. Is that, broadly speaking, the right model, or do you think that's overly simplistic?

Lukianoff: It’s close. I'll go through what the data shows us. It is absolutely the case—if you look at the top 10 schools in the country, for example—one broad thing is that attempts from the left of the speaker are decidedly more likely to actually get you punished or fired. I think it's something like a 75% success rate, and we're talking about everything from extended investigations and suspensions to having to attend an ideological training or actually, literally, having your paper or your syllabus censored. Things that are short of being fired. Of the 1,000 targeting incidents that we're at, it's probably about 180 firings. 

And to be clear, there's thousands of schools. Nobody really knows all that much about things that happen outside of the top 400 schools in the country—that's a little bit of a black box, because those don't get picked up by the news media. They're really difficult to find out. But when the threat comes from the right, it's less than half the time that you are likely to be punished. And those numbers are affected, as you suspected, by how elite the school is; you're much more likely to get in trouble from the left (and to be accused, in the first place, from the left) if you're at a more elite college, and that's blazingly clear from this stuff we stuff we've seen. When it comes to some of the threats from the right, there are the silly cases that Fox News latches onto, like at Babson College in Massachusetts, where a professor tweeted out a joke about when Trump was saying that they would consider even bombing sacred or historical sites in Iran, if it came down to war. The professor cracked a joke saying “Dear Ayatollah—Here are some places that you could attack in the United States that are cultural sites: the Kardashian residence, the Mall of America,” an obvious joke that got covered as if this guy was actually giving advice to the Ayatollah about where to attack. That guy was fired and he has not gotten his job back. There are other cases—Dorian Abbot for example, who had a talk about exoplanets canceled at MIT because of something unrelated he'd written about whether or not universities should hire on the basis of merit. The contours of what will actually get you canceled and why on campus can be kind of horrifying, because we haven't seen anything like it. But they're also, in their own way, fascinating.

Mounk: One of the strange ways in which the discourse about free speech has shifted, as you pointed out earlier, is that it used to be that everybody at least paid lip service to free speech. As the saying goes, “hypocrisy is the debt that vice pays to virtue.” So even if you don't fully live up to your principles of free speech, the fact that you are at least admitting its importance was a good thing. Now, that is often no longer the case. People just disclaim the value altogether. 

On the right, you see a different strain of thinking from people who effectively have concluded that, in their view, the left has such a crushing dominance in the media, higher education, and other cultural institutions in the United States that it's not enough to try and fight for some space for conservatives to be able to express themselves on campuses and so on. Instead, the right actually needs to use its power in a much more ruthless way to basically start a kind of cultural revolution. That has inspired attempts, most famously in Florida by Ron DeSantis, but also in many other states around the country which have deep Republican control to use state legislatures and other kinds of coercive mechanisms in order to effectively censor liberal and progressive views. 

Tell us a little bit about that development and why that's the wrong conclusion for people who are worried about progressive dominance and certain institutions to draw. How can we argue against it and what is FIRE doing to push back?

Lukianoff: We've seen a lot of threats coming from state legislatures that are limiting, sometimes in the form of anti-divisive concepts, as they might have labeled anti-CRT bills. And it is true that the worst cases that we've seen of laws that target freedom of speech and academic freedom have come out of Florida. And it’s an interesting range, too, including one of the craziest laws we've seen, where if you're critical of the Florida government you have to register with the state so people can figure out who's funding you or whatever—that's insanely unconstitutional. Not a close call. And DeSantis himself was talking about lowering the potential protections afforded journalists under the New York Times v. Sullivan defamation standard, which would make it easier to prosecute journalists for just saying mistaken things about politicians. Even in DeSantis’ self-interest that doesn't make sense. Then, of course, there are the laws that are directed at higher ed itself. 

When it comes to the issue of who controls the K-12 curriculum—it is part of constitutional law that there is governmental say in those kinds of decisions. It’s completely different when you talk about higher ed and the divisive concept bills, which took the form of the Stop WOKE Acts one and two that we fought in court, and this was something that specifically said “topics you cannot advocate for in higher education.” When I saw this (we were trying to find plaintiffs for a while) I was shouting to heaven, this is unbelievably unconstitutional. I've seen a lot of unconstitutional laws in my 23 years at FIRE, but this should be laughed out of court. We finally got plaintiffs on that, challenged it (so did the ACLU) and we defeated Stop WOKE one—and, by the way, that was the preferred name for that law that like Ron DeSantis stands for; it's an acronym that stands for something, I forget what. Now there's an at-least-as-bad Stop WOKE two that has been passed by the Florida Legislature and we are going to be challenging that one as well. 

One of the things that is sort of funny about this is that when it comes to higher education reform in the United States, I believe passionately in it. I think it propagates upper class kids. I think it maintains class privilege. I think it's too expensive and too bureaucratized. It's too ideological. I think there are a million problems with American higher education. But if you pass something unconstitutional that limits academic freedom, we will fight you every step of the way. And so far, we've also won every step of the way.

Mounk: How big a threat are these laws in the medium or perhaps the long-term in terms of their ability to actually stay on the books and affect what happens in the country?

Lukianoff: Of course, professors will sometimes actually get in trouble for saying the wrong thing when the law is actually still in effect in the medium term. The good news is that the First Amendment is really good on this stuff. Essentially, if you pass things that violate academic freedom, FIRE will litigate and we'll probably win. So there's reason to be optimistic about fighting back a lot of the attempts to limit free speech in higher education. It does get a little more complicated as you get into K-12. Like I said, because legislatures are traditionally involved in deciding K-12 curriculum, it does get a little more complicated when you talk about libraries, because the most important case I'm pointing to is a case called Pico from 1983 [sic-1982]—that is, I think, almost certainly an opinion that would be overturned on the current makeup of the court that basically said that even though you can make all sorts of judgments on what books you put into K-12 libraries, you can't remove books just based on hostility to the political viewpoint of the books. 

Now, of course, it leaves entirely open the idea that you can remove books on the basis of age appropriateness, for example. So that's an opinion that I think is vulnerable. But overall, when it comes to, particularly, where the rights are quite clear, I think the current Supreme Court, including on the left, is very good on freedom of speech. I hope not to be proven horribly wrong here. Because it's always possible. But I think that the medium and long-term likelihood of these frontal attacks on freedom of speech to survive legal challenges is very low.

Mounk: I'm sure you've convinced many listeners that this is a problem. What is it that we all collectively can do about this? What can all of us do to try and protect and rebuild genuine cultural free speech in higher education and beyond in the United States?

Lukianoff: The single most important thing that we have to do is actually cultural; it's reviving the norms of a free society and a free speech culture. And I say reviving because those of us who grew up in the US decades ago have some very simple idioms, very simple sayings that really captured a lot of what it means to believe in free speech culture, among them very simply that “everyone's entitled to their own opinion.” There are other idioms, repeated all the time, like “it's a free country,” “before you judge somebody, walk a mile in their shoes,” “don't judge a book by its cover.” When it comes to the identity politics aspect of it, a lot of these simple sayings have a tremendous amount of wisdom for what it means to live in a free pluralistic democracy. First, it has to be okay to say some of these things. Step two is to adapt to the terrible way we argue by fighting back against stuff that we know are BS argumentation topics, like the idea that just dismissing someone because they're a lefty is a ridiculous thing. Their political identity doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily wrong, just the same way that intelligent people in the United States (and I was guilty of this myself, once) could accept the idea that just simply labeling something conservative meant you didn't have to think about it anymore–we could get rid of that tomorrow. 

We really have a lot of problems to get solved, we will never get there unless we actually get back to or, at least, prop up some of the habits that actually help you get to truth. That requires individual bravery in some cases. But I think that all of our polling is showing us that most Americans—right, left, center; black or white—actually really love freedom of speech. So I think there is a pent-up desire to get back to the idea that everyone's entitled to their opinion. Can we at least all agree on that? I'm hopeful that we can.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.