Campus Free Speech

The Coddling of the American Mind, Campuses, and the Law

Campus mental health, freedom of speech, and government policy.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


A huge thanks to Eugene for inviting us to write about Greg's latest book this week. The book is The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, which Greg co-authored with social psychologist and NYU Stern School of Business professor Jonathan Haidt. Adam is an attorney who joined FIRE in 2016 after 13 years at the Student Press Law Center; he helped extensively with research in the last several months of the book. The last time Greg guest blogged at the Volokh Conspiracy was in 2012 after the release of his first book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. Six years later it feels like we're living in an entirely different world both on- and off-campus.

The book is not primarily about legal issues or the law. And while freedom of speech issues come up often, it is not primarily a book about freedom of speech on campus, either. It is, rather, a social science detective story to get to the bottom of why we have seen so many disturbing trends on campus over the last five years, particularly a rapid and steep decline in mental health among students on campus over the past several year. The percentage of college students who described themselves as having a mental disorder nearly tripled between 2012 and 2016. Fifty percent attended counseling for mental health concerns, and a third seriously considered suicide. Meanwhile, campus counseling centers are struggling to keep up; between 2009 and 2015, demand for their services increased five times faster than enrollment.

But as we explain in the book, the trends are related:

In years past, administrators were motivated to create campus speech codes in order to curtail what they deemed to be racist or sexist speech. Increasingly, however, the rationale for speech codes and speaker disinvitations was becoming medicalized: Students claimed that certain kinds of speech—and even the content of some books and courses—interfered with their ability to function. They wanted protection from material that they believed could jeopardize their mental health by "triggering" them, or making them "feel unsafe." […] What is new today is the premise that students are fragile. Even those who are not fragile themselves often believe that others are in danger and therefore need protection.

We identify six causal threads to try to explain why this seemingly quite sudden change occurred around the school year of 2013–14: paranoid parenting (which Haidt wrote about here), the decline of free play (probably the most novel argument in the book, which Haidt and Greg wrote about in The New York Times), increased political polarization, social media (as Jean Twenge emphasizes in iGen), corporatization and bureaucratization of universities (particularly their concern with compliance with federal law and avoiding legal liability), and, of course, the resurgence of the new and divisive form of identity politics.

For a quick overview of many of the themes of the book, check out this interview with Greg and Jonathan Haidt on CBS news or read the accompanying article. For much more in depth discussion of the themes of this book, check out Nick Gillespie's interview with Greg and Jon for Reason:

This week, we'll discuss four topics more closely related to the regular content of a legal blog: the history of modern campus speech codes, the current case that could lead to a resurgence in speech codes, the intersection of Title IX and harassment law and how it affects campus speech codes, and thoughts on how we improve the environment for free speech on campus.