Greg Lukianoff is the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization that opposes speech codes and other forms of censorship on college campuses. He's also an executive producer of Can We Take a Joke?, a feature-length documentary that premiered at the DOC NYC film festival last November. In March, Reason TV's Nick Gillespie talked with Lukianoff about what's driving "one of the worst years for campus free speech" the Stanford Law School graduate has ever witnessed—and what his group is doing about it.
Q: Let's talk first about the campus situation.
A: I have to say, this has been one of the worst years for campus free speech that I've seen in my entire career. FIRE was founded in '99, I started in 2001, and for the overwhelming majority of my career, what I've been fighting is administrative overreach. Then the other phase was when the feds started pushing the administrators to overreach, so it was this horrible cycle. But during that entire time, the single constituency on campus that seemed to have the most common sense, and understand free speech and due process the best, was always the students. And somewhere two or three years ago, that changed.
Q: Do you think it's because students have been brought up in a very protective [environment]?
A: To be completely frank, we really don't know, and I'd love to do a lot more research on it. But I think that freedom of speech is a really sophisticated concept. We're so used to it in America that we kind of forget how sophisticated it is. Meanwhile, if you have a K–12 environment or a parental environment where people are explaining that free speech is "just the argument the bully, the bigot, and the robber baron make," that's morally persuasive. And if nobody's ever explained to you otherwise then of course you're going to think that free speech is the mean person's argument.
Q: That brings us to Can We Take a Joke?, the documentary that was directed by former reason employee Ted Balaker. It's about how political correctness and stand-up comedy are like oil and water. Talk about the genesis of the movie.
A: Funny thing: I came out with a book in 2012 called Unlearning Liberty, and I got invited onto a lot of shows, but the one I thought was coolest was a podcast with the owner of the [comedy club] Comedy Cellar. There was a comedian on the panel with me, and we kept talking about him being the most liberal person on the panel, and toward the end, he said, "I don't really like playing campuses anymore because I can't use my good material." And that made sense to me already by that time, but it was striking to hear it from a liberal comedian.
Q: And since then we've heard Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher, and Chris Rock all say similar things. Why should students see Can We Take a Joke? and why should the rest of us see it?
A: Well, the first thing is, because it's incredibly funny. We've got Gilbert Gottfried in it, we've got Penn Jillette, we've got Lisa Lampanelli, we've got Adam Carolla. The movie itself is great. And it's also my attempt to sort of trick people into learning about freedom of speech. So we make the point that Lenny Bruce, the much-venerated comedian from the '60s, wouldn't last for five minutes on the modern college campus. We're creating a culture on campus where if you have a right [not] to be offended, you can't really have comedy.