The future of free speech: coddled or gritty?

Greg Lukianoff, Hadley Union Building, April 15, 2019. Photo by David Loomis.

An analysis

By David Loomis

INDIANA – A couple of the biggest names in Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s yearlong “free speech project” came to campus last week. The two speakers echoed an embrace of First Amendment principles but differed on how their young audiences should apply them.

On Monday in the Hadley Union Building, Greg Lukianoff, a constitutional lawyer and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, spoke about his 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind, an elaboration of his 2015 cover story in The Atlantic magazine. The article sparked national discussion about a rising generation of college-student snowflakes said to be intolerant of views that conflict with their own, unwilling to engage in civil debate and unable to take a joke.

IUP is not the kind of elite college that Lukianoff critiqued. Unlike campuses where controversial speakers have been cancelled – the University of California at Berkeley, for example, where violent protests in 2017 forced cancellation of a speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos – IUP has seen no such trouble.

The closest the campus came to confrontation was in April 2018 when conservative firebrand Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, spoke at the Kovalchick center. Security was tight, attendance was low, and a Holocaust survivor outdrew him 4-1.

But IUP is the kind of campus that Lukianoff has in mind when he describes a “psychological crisis” affecting young people. Lukianoff’s diagnosis is “cognitive distortions” that young people reveal in overgeneralizing, labeling and catastrophizing — for example, all-or-nothing thinking that things are either great or ghastly, nothing in between.

Evidence for this mental-health crisis, Lukianoff said, includes an increase in depression among boys and girls beginning in 2012-2013. That’s when suicide rates began rising among people ages 15-19, and they have doubled since 2008, Lukianoff said.

IUP’s counseling center said it, too, has seen the rise. In May 2015, the counseling center estimated 800 students sought help during the academic year. So far this academic year, 1,340 students have sought treatment, the center reported in an email last week. That’s an increase of 68 percent – two-thirds — in four years.

Lukianoff’s writings may criticize coddled young people, but his speech sounded like coddling-lite: Ease up on the kids, he advised.

“Stop telling kids this is the worst we’ve ever seen,” said Lukianoff, who has acknowledged his own bouts of depression. “Stop making it worse.”


Jeffrey Rosen, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, April 17, 2019. Photo by David Loomis.

ON WEDNESDAY, Jeffrey Rosen, professor at George Washington University Law School in the nation’s capital and president and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, took a tack with more grit.

He succinctly summarized centuries of First Amendment philosophy and jurisprudence, leading the discussion to Facebook, Google and other contemporary social media. The Age of Enlightenment may have produced in the Founding Fathers a faith in reason over passion, Rosen said. But time is the crucial element.

“There’s no time now,” Rosen said. “Passionate clickbait rules.”

The current crisis was foretold not in George Orwell’s dystopian novel but in Neil Postman’s critique of it: Our downfall is more likely to be our own doing than Big Brother’s.

Meanwhile, young people express wide support for suppression of hateful speech, which is protected by the First Amendment and by the near-unanimous judgment of the U.S. Supreme Court. And meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg has said he will create a “supreme court” for Facebook to adjudicate its own manifold speech issues.

Both prospects worry Rosen.

“I fear our free-speech consensus will collapse,” he said.


HIS PRESCRIPTION was far from coddling: We must master our passions and cultivate our reason, Rosen advised the audience.

“This is an urgent national civic crisis,” he concluded. “This campus free-speech debate will be done within a decade. But this question of reason and deliberation on the internet, this will last a long time.”

Rosen saw some hope. When he asked whether any minds were changed during the discussion, several hands went up.


David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.

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