Speech codes and safe spaces: How do universities navigate new rules of debate?

A portrait of Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, discussed speech codes, safe spaces and the "Coddling of the American Mind" during a Feb. 4 Speaker Series program at Penn State Behrend.

Credit: Contributed photo

Before trigger warnings; before the snowflakes, safe spaces and “Change My Mind” tables; before the crowd shouted down Richard Spencer, the white nationalist, at the University of Florida, which had spent an estimated $600,000 for security at his talk; there was Mr. Rogers, in his cardigan, talking to a tiger puppet.

Fred Rogers is one of the first names on the "Disinvitation Database," an ever-lengthening compendium of commencement speakers and debate participants whose views sparked controversy on a college campus. Rogers, the host of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” was deemed not "an age-appropriate commencement speaker," according to some students at Old Dominion University, who protested his selection.

That was in 2000. That year, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which maintains the Disinvitation Database, critics petitioned, protested or sued to block speeches by six people. In 2019, critics tried to disinvite 37 speakers, including Vice President Mike Pence, according to FIRE.

Greg Lukianoff, the president and CEO of FIRE, will discuss the debates over free speech and religious liberty on college campuses when he visits Penn State Behrend as part of the college’s Speaker Series. His Feb. 4 talk, which begins at 7:30 p.m. in McGarvey Commons, is free and open to the public.

“Everything’s speeding up,” Lukianoff, an attorney and best-selling author, told the Atlantic. “The echo chamber on one side of the spectrum is crashing into the echo chamber on the other side. And what it’s producing is pretty ugly.”

FIRE was founded in 1999 by University of Pennsylvania Professor Alan Charles Kors and Boston civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate, who co-authored the book “The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses.” The organization advocates for the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges; its legal network challenges campus speech codes and provides referrals when students or faculty members face discipline.

Lukianoff joined the organization in 2001, serving as FIRE’s first director of legal and public advocacy. He became FIRE’s president in 2006. He is the author of “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate,” and also wrote FIRE’s “Guide to Free Speech on Campus.” Lukianoff’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. His essay “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” co-written with Jonathan Haidt, appeared on the cover of the Atlantic in 2015. It was expanded to book length in 2018.

Throughout the book, Lukianoff and Haidt argued that colleges that limit political or sensitive speech short-change students who will have to navigate awkward and often uncomfortable discussions in the workplace, and in social settings.

“What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce?” they wrote. “Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt?”

Lukianoff’s appearance at Penn State Behrend is part of the college’s yearlong Speaker Series, designed to provoke thought and stimulate conversation about the most compelling issues and events in society. Other speakers this year include Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, CNN political analyst Gloria Borger and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the physician who exposed the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

The Speaker Series is made possible by the college’s Student Activity Fee, the Division of Student Affairs and the Harriet Behrend Ninow Memorial Lecture Series Fund. For more information, visit behrend.psu.edu/speakerseries.