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This Guy is on FIRE
June 4, 2013 10:25 AM   Subscribe

An interview with Greg Lukianoff, founder of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education where he tackles that fine line between harrassment and sharing an opinion.
posted by Leezie (34 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
I never heard of FIRE until the Temple University case, where they sued the school because someone who couldn't produce an adequate MA thesis claimed retaliation and political bias, instead of actually doing real work.

Does FIRE produce any large scale data about how many people are allegedly negatively affected by 'speech codes'?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:53 AM on June 4, 2013


Actually, he danced around what that line is. The topic's a minefield, and I can't imagine trying to take it on, but I'm glad that others are agitating for freedom of expression. People have a right to not be harassed, but no one has a right to stifle opinions merely because they would prefer not to hear them. The space in between is gray and it's no wonder that Lukianoff doesn't try to hard to draw a border.

Because of this issue of perception, I was tempted to dismiss FIRE and its aims as unreachable or possibly even disingenuous, but this remark from Lukianoff really spoke to me and made me see the value in what the group does:

Putting this weird energy around disagreement, dissent, satire, parody, devil’s advocacies, or thought experimentation makes everything so dreadfully serious. Students no longer appreciate the idea that the professor whose seemingly strange attitudes about everything from sex to religion to politics could actually be presenting an opportunity to dive into something interesting—as opposed to saying something another person’s fragile ego can’t handle.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:55 AM on June 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


FIRE has defended people the MeFi hive mind would probably both praise and condemn. The "Notre Dame vs. the Klan" thing was both a PR bonanza for them and an example of why they're needed. I think their work is really important, and I've donated money to them in the past.
posted by eugenen at 11:13 AM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


Does FIRE produce any large scale data about how many people are allegedly negatively affected by 'speech codes'?

They do compile large-scale evaluations of university speech codes, and it could be argued that those badly-rated codes negatively affect all the students on those campuses. But it's not like something only becomes a civil rights violation when it affects lots of people, so I don't really think that's very relevant.

FIRE won the speech code part of the Temple University case and had the code ruled unconstitutional.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 11:25 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not that I think Lukianoff's project is 100% well-intentioned or efficacious, but this article delineates exactly why I will no longer click on certain posts on the Blue.
posted by digitalprimate at 11:26 AM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


What a lot of the terror about "political correctness gone mad" boiled down to in the 90s was that Campus Admins just want to squash any kind of speech that would make them look bad, from any political perspective. Sounds like this guy and FIRE are doing good work defending folks at universities who deserve freedom of expression and that's probably a good thing.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:28 AM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


From the article:
What unites sexual misconduct codes and sexual harassment codes and speech codes is that if you define things broadly enough, every single student on your campus is guilty of either a speech code violation or of sexual misconduct—which makes it very easy for administrators to then pick and choose who they want to target. This, of course, works out poorly for people who are different or unpopular, people who are oddballs, or in some cases students that the administrators simply don’t like.
THIS. Even if you're unconcerned with general limits on free speech on campus in the name of preventing harassment, this is what you should be thinking about. When you get to a certain point, you're basically just handing tools of oppression to those who already have power, and they can legitimately target anyone, based on their own whims.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 11:34 AM on June 4, 2013 [9 favorites]


FIRE has defended people the MeFi hive mind would probably both praise and condemn.

I don't think the hive mind is that homogeneous, but I'll fight for your right to say it. :-)

Seriously, that's a sign that they're doing a rare thing, which is to really stand up for, you know, FREE SPEECH. No matter what it's about, or whether it pisses you off. And I think he's really on to something about how the level of discourse has taken a nose dive since a generation of college-educated people have become conditioned to be afraid to talk about almost any matter of actual substance.

Even if the article does have an inset that mentions my alma mater unfavorably. Lord knows I was always afraid to speak my mind there, and that was during the '80s...
posted by randomkeystrike at 12:03 PM on June 4, 2013


Whatever FIRE's stated goals, its campaigns can backfire. After the Temple suit, professors in the History department had passed out fliers before class saying that overtly political discussions would not be welcome in the classroom.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:11 PM on June 4, 2013


Free speech rights for students make sense. I fail to understand however, why professors should be quite so protected. If organizations like FIRE weren't waiting in the wings, I don't know if my alma mater would keep Steven Landsburg around after a history of sexism and rape apology. Twice now, students have protested his classes, and I wouldn't be surprised if his opinions have discouraged a number of women from majoring in economics. But FIRE apparently believes that constitutional protections for free speech extend to universities providing a platform for such speech. Hmm.
posted by Wemmick at 12:42 PM on June 4, 2013


Likewise Lukianoff describes the "wetback" issue a bit differently than other versions of it I heard.

He describes it as:

At Brandeis University, for example, a professor who’d been teaching Latin American studies for close to fifty years explained to his class where the epithet “wetback” came from, and he was found guilty of racial harassment.

However, the professor wasn't explaining the epithet but was talking about racism in a way that was misinterpreted.

According to the professor, Donald Hindley, who has taught in the politics department for almost 47 years at the university, the word came during a historical discussion about racism against immigrants. "When Mexicans come north as illegal immigrants, we call them wetbacks," he told the Brandeis student newspaper, the Justice, in describing his comments. He says he wasn't saying that's what they should be called, but what many Americans do call them. ( Inside Higher Ed spoke briefly with Hindley, but he did not return subsequent calls for clarification.)

That's not how some students in the class -- at least two -- interpreted it. They "individually and independently" approached Steven L. Burg, the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics and the chair of the department, "to register serious concern and complaints about things that had been said by professor Donald Hindley in class and in the case of one of the students, directly to the student," he said. (Since the proceedings of the subsequent investigation are still confidential, it is not certain whether all the students responded to the same incident.)


Now, as I imagine it, I'd probably side with Hindley in this situation. But it seems like FIRE and Lukianoff tend to remove just as much nuance from situations as those they fight against.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:43 PM on June 4, 2013


One way to help prevent abuse of well-meaning codes is to have review and appeal processes and an established panel of reasonably ethically sane academics to go over the case. If an administrator can simply decree that hate speech hath occurred or if they have what amounts to "if you're accused you're guilty" process then it risks being as oppressive as the thing it seeks to address.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:44 PM on June 4, 2013


I fail to understand however, why professors should be quite so protected.

Tenure.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:49 PM on June 4, 2013


Free speech rights for students make sense. I fail to understand however, why professors should be quite so protected.

For the same reason academics typically get tenure, I think. Should Landsburg really be fired for publicly agreeing with Rush Limbaugh?
posted by eugenen at 12:50 PM on June 4, 2013


(It would also be a good idea if said panel was established outside the power structure of the institution in question thus rendering it immune to internal political pressure.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:50 PM on June 4, 2013


I've always hated political correctness.
posted by ReeMonster at 12:54 PM on June 4, 2013


Should Landsburg really be fired for publicly agreeing with Rush Limbaugh?

Not just agreeing with Rush; Landsburg could have respectfully argued that contraception is not a guaranteed right. Instead he implied that Rush was right in calling Sandra Fluke a "slut". And later he discussed the sexual assault of an unconscious person as "reaping the benefits." That's arguably across the line when rape is so common on campuses. Defending academic freedom isn't always a defense of the powerless - protecting professor speech can come at the expense of a healthy environment for the students.
posted by Wemmick at 1:04 PM on June 4, 2013


Free speech rights for students make sense. I fail to understand however, why professors should be quite so protected.

Because academics need to feel free to put forth ideas that might not be universally well-received. The price of that is the occasional airing of opinions that disgust us, but neither you nor I are the arbiters of what's permissible: if you want our Alma Mater to discipline Landsburg, then be consistent and applaud when they quiet someone with whom you passionately agree.
posted by Mayor Curley at 1:06 PM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Because academics need to feel free to put forth ideas that might not be universally well-received.

Right, but I think FIRE blurs the distinction between academic freedom and free speech. As I see it, academic freedom exists so that academics are free to explore unorthodox and controversial positions within their respective academic fields. I don't see how misogyny falls under the field of economics.
posted by Wemmick at 1:09 PM on June 4, 2013


I don't see how misogyny falls under the field of economics.

As near as I can tell, economists are of the opinion that everything falls under the field of economics.
posted by fader at 1:28 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't see how misogyny falls under the field of economics.

That's pretty tendentious. The blog post that's the subject of your "rape apology" link is plausibly linked to economics and is basically just a kind of annoying Scott Adams-ian thought experiment, not some misogynist screed. The Rush Limbaugh stuff is more politically objectionable but is pretty clearly within his academic field, too.
posted by eugenen at 1:29 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


One way to help prevent abuse of well-meaning codes is to have review and appeal processes and an established panel of reasonably ethically sane academics to go over the case. If an administrator can simply decree that hate speech hath occurred or if they have what amounts to "if you're accused you're guilty" process then it risks being as oppressive as the thing it seeks to address.

Due process during campus disciplinary hearings is another one of FIRE's areas of interest.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 1:43 PM on June 4, 2013


Eh, I've had the guy as a professor. He always manages to couch his prejudices just on the side of plausible deniability as economics, but there's a history here. I chose to never take another econ class after a lecture exploring his bizarre interpretation of sexual ethics in econ 110. This arguably affected my education. The case of Landsburg in particular is debatable, and sorry if it's a derail, but I'm puzzling over a serious question here: where do the rights of a professor end and the rights of students to have a respectful learning environment begin? FIRE apparently takes a hard line in favor of the freedom of the professor, and I'm not convinced that's the right one.
posted by Wemmick at 1:46 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


FIRE apparently takes a hard line in favor of the freedom of the professor, and I'm not convinced that's the right one.

FIRE consistently takes a hard line in favor of freedom of inquiry on the part of all persons involved with university academics. Part of a "respectful learning environment" is avoiding insult to students' intelligence in presuming that difficult inquiries (as opposed to individualized harassment, retribution, or discrimination) that upset them should be restricted.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 1:57 PM on June 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


Between this thread and the sci-fi kerfluffle, today is a banner day for some hot button issues, especially for me.

Like the thing with the sexist professor. Ok, so what he has said is pretty much sexist claptrap bullshit, but could someone, anyone, clearly elucidate WHY it is wrong? I don't care if it's a 40 page treatise on feminist theory, just provide something other than "that's wrong and you shouldn't say that". Because, seriously, I think that's missing in almost every accusation of WHY some offensive person should be called out. I am all for calling people out, but would it not help the cause of fixing this behavior to have a clear and concise (or even a long and meandering) way to expound upon the whole reason why what this person did was wrong, and these are the reasons why it is wrong, and if they were not aware of those reasons before, maybe now they will be, and even if they reject those reasons, well, they were told why, so second strike, GTFO. Even if it was an academic thought experiment, it is still useful to have a basis for the cause and effect of their actions, versus just letting it float out there, or to have someone, after the fact, go to an authority figure and simply say "they said a naughty, they should be punished". Even in criminal sentencing, they ask the defendant if they understand the charges against them.

Conversely, it seems that the excuse for such idiotic behavior always stems from "I should be able to state my horrible evil thoughts because REASONS" and then no real reason, or one of any substance is ever forthcoming. Half the reason listening to Limbaugh or Hannity or any of the right-wing blowhards is so god damned frustating is because they NEVER give any concrete, factual, or even historically accurate reason for their thinking. They are simply stating "it just feels right to me that things should be this way." And frankly, the more liberal side of "treat everyone equally, fairly, and with some semblance of human empathy" makes a hell of a lot more sense than any draconian list of "things you cannot say, or cannot think or you are a bad person".

"Is what you are saying meant to harm, or meant to enlighten?" I just made that up. It's about the best I can come up with.
posted by daq at 2:56 PM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Seriously, that's a sign that they're doing a rare thing, which is to really stand up for, you know, FREE SPEECH. No matter what it's about, or whether it pisses you off.

There's a pretty well-known organisation that does that. See National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie.

But maybe I'm just a cynic who's skeptical of the sort of people who put "Individual Rights" in their organisation's name. Because that's never used as code for anything.
posted by hoyland at 4:23 PM on June 4, 2013


hoyland: "There's a pretty well-known organisation that does that. See National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie.

But maybe I'm just a cynic who's skeptical of the sort of people who put "Individual Rights" in their organisation's name. Because that's never used as code for anything.
"

"Individual rights" is code for ... Nazi-ism? Seriously?
posted by dendrochronologizer at 4:49 PM on June 4, 2013


Here's the thing. If I were a woman in one of his classes, I think I'd find it quite uncomfortable knowing that my professor has implied that calling a woman a slut is acceptable if you disagree with her, and that he is willing to call her a prostitute. (he also coyly suggested that "whore" would be appropriate as well.) Or knowing that he's mused about the ethics of raping an unconscious person using the phrase "reaping the benefits." Controversial opinions and hypothetical arguments can be discussed civilly, and I'm in favor of that, but I don't think that's what's going on here.

Further, one of the arguments that FIRE takes for free speech is that "the best way to fight speech you think is bad is with more speech." I think this is a bit simplistic. Unequal platforms mean that some speech is heard more than others. One of the big complaints against the ruling Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission isn't that the wealthy and corporations should be silenced entirely, but that money gives an unequal mouthpiece to specific interests. I think there's a similar argument to be made with professors. If a professor says something a student is offended by, there's not an equal way to object. Students aren't able to publicly disagree with Landsburg during class, because in a room of 150 students, there's no way give voice to dissenting speech. Here's FIRE objecting to a peaceful protest during his class. At least in the classroom, disagreement is silenced for the purpose of education. I guess I'm puzzled by a stance that free speech always leads to positive outcomes when access to platforms for speech is so unequal.
posted by Wemmick at 5:03 PM on June 4, 2013


I guess I'm puzzled by a stance that free speech always leads to positive outcomes when access to platforms for speech is so unequal.

You're missing it-- free speech doesn't always lead to positive outcomes. Sometimes it leads to shitty outcomes like people being swayed to join cults or hate groups. But it's also absolutely necessary for the free exchange ideas that lead to the most positive of outcomes.

You are not and should not be the arbiter of acceptable expression. Nor am I, or should I be. Or anyone else. We all have biases and limits to our tolerance that would stifle legitimate expression because we don't want to hear it.

You are right in insinuating that there are some positions that are not defensible and are essentially valueless. When individuals express positions, unless the aim is to specifically incite violence, it is not possible to objectively assess whether the position is without value or merely counter to the listener's values.

Therefore, the proper solution is never to suppress. The solution is to engage and offer evidence of the spuriousness of opposing argument. This encourages the growth of ideas and solidifies convictions. Suppressing the exchange of ideas is strictly for totalitarians who do not value discourse and reason, or those who fear that their own beliefs can not stand on their own.

If your position is the correct one, reasonable people will agree with you. Unreasonable people will always exist, and you can't force them to be reasonable. Suppressing other positions will not stop people from believing them and will not prevent people from thinking of them independently of the voice you are silencing. It's like Franklin Roosevelt said "no man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever." That applies both to ideas you agree with, and ones that you find repugnant.

You have an axe to grind about Landsburg, and, sharing your association with UR, I completely understand that. But this is bigger than your (deserved) visceral disgust with one individual.

If you want to ensure that you are always free to express yourself, you need to make sure that everyone is free to express themselves. Consistency dictates that if it's acceptable for you to decide what's permissible expression, it's acceptable for others to do that as well. And those others might decide that you should be the one who is silenced. No one should have that authority, for the good of everyone else.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:24 PM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


dendrochronologizer:
"Individual rights" is code for ... Nazi-ism? Seriously?


No, it's more code for "the free speech rights we really find important are protecting the privileged's ability to speak poorly of others without repercussion." My personal "favorite" is when FIRE defended a professor's right to be racist on an examination question. But this stuff is pretty much in FIRE's DNA - it's worth reading the book that launched the organization, The Shadow University, to get a better idea of where they actually are coming from.

The part I found the most dishonest is this, however:
So we’ve defended Muslim student groups and evangelical Christian student groups, some of whom are being kicked off campus because they believe that homosexuality is sinful. I don’t agree with that point of view, and I both hope and believe that such views will eventually be abandoned. But I challenge my friends who support expelling such groups: Do we really want to live in a society that can try to coerce somebody into changing their theological point of view just because it’s unpopular?

The problem with Lukianoff's statement is that he's ignoring or hiding what official recognition of a student organization actually means - it's not just access to the campus, but the ability to link your organization with the school's name, and most importantly the ability to request money from the student general fund. Which is at most colleges funded by fees that every student is required to pay. This is why many colleges have instituted what are known as "all-comer" policies that require official student organizations to have policies allowing any member of the student body to not only join the organization, but also lead it. And as the Supreme Court ruled, as long as such a policy is handled in a purely ministerial manner, it does not constitute a violation of the freedom of religion.

Mind you, the school is not requiring any organization that cannot meet these criteria to disband, only that the group cannot receive the official imprimatur of the college. It's very much similar to the situation that the BSA found themselves in post-Dale: the group can have whatever policies they want, but if they want a share of the student body's kitty, they have to be open to the entire body. To try to argue that this is an infringement on religious freedom while ignoring the monetary aspect is not just a herring of an impressive shade of vermillion, but it's making the argument that students should fund people who discriminate against them.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:01 PM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


So.. universities should tolerate scientific racism, holocaust denial... anything? Because it seems to me that there are lines that institutions of learning should draw - especially when students are paying for a certain kind of education. Free speech is constitutionally protected, and you've made an excellent argument for that. But academic freedom is not quite the same thing, and I don't think arguments for free speech necessarily imply that universities must institutionally protect and sponsor any and all professor views, especially when some of those views are hostile to a number of the student body.
The solution is to engage and offer evidence of the spuriousness of opposing argument.
Would you advocate giving students who disagree the ability to debate the professor during class? Because currently that form of speech is curtailed in the interest of education.
posted by Wemmick at 8:07 PM on June 4, 2013


"Individual rights" is code for ... Nazi-ism? Seriously?

*rolls eyes* No, that well-known organisation called the ACLU represented the Nazis in that case, as one presumably would gather from clicking the link. Apparently I was too subtle.
posted by hoyland at 8:23 PM on June 4, 2013


This is why many colleges have instituted what are known as "all-comer" policies that require official student organizations to have policies allowing any member of the student body to not only join the organization, but also lead it.

This policy seems like it could have rather troubling consequences for minority spaces on campus.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:09 AM on June 5, 2013


Not really - for example, the Society of Women Engineers allows anyone to join, but you are expected to abide by the organizational bylaws. In theory, this means that you could have someone opposed to the organization's goals elected to the leadership, but in practice, such individuals aren't going to be a popular choice for leadership in the first place.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:23 AM on June 5, 2013


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