Book review: “Freedom From Speech” by Greg Lukianoff

[originally posted at Canadian Lawyer]

It used to be that people waited until they were actually offended to take action against something that offended them, but Carleton University student Arun Smith has no time for such details. When a “free-speech wall” upon which anyone could write any opinion was erected at his school last year, Smith promptly tore it down. When the wall went back up, he did it again.
Smith was unapologetic about his actions, declaring on his Twitter feed that, “Not every opinion is valid, nor deserving of expression.” When CBC journalist Kady O’Malley argued that this isn’t his call to make, Smith responded, “just watch me.”

Greg Lukianoff’s Freedom From Speech, an entry in the “Broadside” series issued by the conservative publisher Encounter Books, shows how this attitude is depressingly common on American college campuses, with implications for the world outside of the university — including the legal system.  As the Smith case illustrates, this attitude is depressingly common in Canadian schools as well.

Lukianoff is a representative of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which monitors and takes legal action against censorship and suppression of speech in American post-secondary institutions.

Unfortunately, his organization has been particularly busy in recent years, as restrictive “speech codes” proliferate and students mobilize against speakers whose views are apparently so repugnant that no one should be allowed to hear them.

Conservative personalities initially made up most “disinvitation season” targets, but as these things are wont to do, before long more liberal (but insufficiently liberal) speakers were hounded off campus, assuming they weren’t disinvited beforehand. Off campus, meanwhile, the likes of celebrity chef Paula Deen, MSNBC host Martin Bashir, and Mozilla Firefox designer Brendan Eich saw their careers torpedoed by the outrage patrol, sometimes for incidents or comments made years beforehand.

As Lukianoff acknowledges, where governmental agencies or institutions aren’t involved, these aren’t constitutional violations as defined by the First Amendment. People do, of course, have every right to express their distaste with someone’s remarks or actions, and refuse to patronize businesses which employ that person.

But the attitude implicit in these campaigns — that people have a “right” to be protected from material that may offend them — seems to be spreading and it has serious implications for the legal system and our system of government.

In some European jurisdictions, for example, a “right to be forgotten”  — mandating the removal of information about certain people from the Internet — is being awkwardly implemented. And much of the world is seeing a revival of laws against anti-religious “blasphemy,” with potentially disastrous consequences.

Lukianoff convincingly argues that the “right” to be free from offence is a pernicious concept that universities — institutions supposedly dedicated to the pursuit of truth, freewheeling debate, and challenging of old assumptions —- should be fighting against. Instead, they’re the incubators.

Interestingly, Lukianoff also points to a “problem of comfort” largely brought about, paradoxically, by the abundance of media outlets available on the Internet and cable television. If you’re a political conservative, you can get all your news from right-leaning outlets like Fox or the Daily Caller, rarely having their fundamental beliefs challenged. (For left-wingers, replace Fox or the Daily Caller with MSNBC and Salon.com.) And when you get most of your news from one perspective, you’ll have that much harder a time handling news from another, opposed point of view.

How much of this is applicable to Canada? Well, with a handful of exceptions like the little-watched Sun News channel, our homegrown media outlets aren’t as politically polarized as those in the U.S.; on the other hand, in Canada, freedom of expression is culturally and constitutionally less sacrosanct. Either way, Arun Smith isn’t alone.

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