Here’s my TIME.com column today, co-authored with my husband, Nicholas Christakis. There are few things I care more about than free speech and I think it’s fair to say that college campuses are currently one of the most restrictive speech environments in the United States. I love Harvard, my alma mater and current employer, and it breaks my heart to see what’s happening to higher education’s crown jewel:
Is a satirical flyer distributed a few days ago at Harvard with joking references to anti-semitism, “coloreds,” and sexual assault worth defending? We think so. The protection of free speech is meaningless if what we really mean is “free speech we find appropriate.” When we prohibit or punish certain kinds of statements, even vile ones, then we are protecting speech only insofar as we agree with it or it does not offend us. This is not only a logically inconsistent position, but it is also one that harms our students.
The incident illustrates how badly well-intended policies and actions regarding free speech can lead us away from our core values. The flyer in question was a mock invitation to one of Harvard’s infamous all-male ‘final’ clubs that was distributed under room doors in nine different dorms. Announcing the arrival of a new fictional club emphasizing inclusion, diversity and love (and aptly named “The Pigeon”), the invitation warned: “Jews need not apply. Seriously, no f—- Jews. Coloreds okay.” It also referred to the date rape drug, Rohypnol. Despite the fact that it was satirizing the social clubs’ reputation for exclusivity and abuse of women, a firestorm erupted and an investigation was initiated to find the anonymous authors.
We tend to think of the 1990s as the height of political correctness on college campuses. But as a new book argues, college students today are more insulated from offensive or unpopular speech, ostensibly for their own and the greater good, than they were twenty years ago. In Unlearning Liberty, author Greg Lukianoff describes a perfect storm of highly-tuned cultural sensitivity, bureaucratic bloat, and fear of litigation that has created a stultifying atmosphere on campuses nationwide where unpopular ideas and offensive language are policed to an absurd extent. Lukianoff’s organization, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, (which includes a number of Harvard faculty on its board) rates campuses that curtail free speech and Harvard currently has the worst rating…