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Q&A with First Amendment Day speaker Greg Lukianoff

Greg Lukianoff is the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the keynote speaker at UNC's sixth annual First Amendment Day, which is organized by the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy.

In an email, Staff Writer Katie Kilmartin asked him about what he plans to talk about in his keynote address, his opinion on UNC's First Amendment climate and more.

THE DAILY TAR HEEL: What are your thoughts on UNC’s ranking as one of the worst 10 universities for free speech?

GREG LUKIANOFF: I was disappointed that I had to include UNC on this year’s list. I explain my reasons in that piece which you can find here:

I’m quite sure I will be getting questions about it tomorrow!

DTH: What do you plan to speak about at the keynote address for First Amendment Day?

GL: Tomorrow, I plan to talk about, of course, the First Amendment, but beyond that the larger principles of freedom of speech itself and why I believe those principles are under threat. Make no mistake about it, free speech is an eternally radical idea, so it is always under threat at all times in human history.  

I will also talk about my first book, "Unlearning Liberty," and my new short book, "Freedom From Speech," in which I lay out my causes for concern for speech going forward.

DTH: What main ideas do you hope people will take away from your address?

GL: Well, I hope that they will leave with a better understanding of how strongly protected speech is both in the United States and especially on college campuses, and what a dramatic contrast that is to the way many universities behave. I also hope that they will understand a little bit more about why free speech is important not just on a legal or societal level, but on a personal level as well. It’s very hard to solve any problem when you can’t talk about those problems honestly, frankly, and in the spirit of candor.

DTH: What are your predictions for higher education and freedom of speech in the future?

GL: My great concern is that free speech is being eroded on a global level, and even in our own country that has a rich and proud tradition of defending freedom of speech. As I explain in "Freedom From Speech":

“ … people all over the globe are coming to expect emotional and intellectual comfort as though it were a right. This is precisely what you would expect when you train a generation to believe that they have a right not to be offended. Eventually, they stop demanding freedom of speech and start demanding freedom from speech.”

DTH: Why do you think higher education has become a place “free from speech?”

GL: To be clear, I don’t think that higher education has become a place free from speech. Quite the contrary, I think at its best universities can still exhibit the best traditions of freedom of speech. My concern, however, is that universities too often help encourage students to “think like censors.”

DTH: Why do you think the First Amendment is so important, specifically in higher education?

GL: While the First Amendment is important at public colleges, and does not directly apply to private colleges, the concept of freedom of speech, which is the bigger idea and rationale for the First Amendment in the first place, is absolutely crucial to the success of a university. The Sweezy v. New Hampshire majority opinion written by Chief Justice Warren illustrates this idea perfectly:

“The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation…Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise, our civilization will stagnate and die.”

-Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234, 250 (1957)

DTH: How do you think universities can reverse their strict ideals of censorship?

GL: Terrific question. I think universities need to do a better job of preparing students to hear things that might challenge, irk, and even offend them. I know this idea may sound shocking, but it’s very important that students understand that the process of learning in a deeply imperfect world will necessarily involve hearing things and being exposed to ideas and realities that can be unpleasant. This is not a regrettable side effect of education, but part of its core mission. I make no bones about it, and as I’ve said in one million different ways, being offended is what happens when you have your deepest beliefs challenged, and if you make it through four years of college without ever having had your deepest beliefs challenged you should demand your money back.

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