Social Media and Mass Censorship | Interview with Dr. Nadine Strossen

We met with Dr. Nadine Strossen to discuss social media’s effects on academic freedom, self-censorship on college campuses, and much more. Enjoy!

Social Media and Mass Censorship | Interview with Dr. Nadine Strossen

Former ACLU President, Dr. Nadine Strossen discusses the attack on academic freedom, a constant battle that threatens to erode democracy. Dr. Strossen emphasizes that massive self-censorship has resulted in the suppression of ideologies on both sides of the political spectrum. Many students fear the response of their peers and thus practice self-censorship to avoid being ostracized. Dr. Jed Macosko and Dr. Nadine Strossen also discuss the cyclical nature of censorship on college campuses, which is being exponentially increased by social media. Despite this, Strossen remains very optimistic about the future of academic freedom and by extension society as a whole. Follow along as former President of the American Civil Liberties Union and current professor of Law at the New York Law School, Nadine Strossen talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

Optimism even more than being the cause of activism is the result of activism.” – Dr. Nadine Strossen

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Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:16.2Freedom of speach

Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko, at Wake Forest University and We are just excited to have Professor Nadine Strossen come visit us today and talk a little bit about academic freedom, which seems to be under attack. People talk about being cancelled, and social media has done that to many people.

What do you think is happening in the last, let’s say, 10 years to academic freedom, and should we be concerned?

Nadine Strossen: We definitely should be concerned, Jed. To put it in context, though, I do want to quote a line that is ascribed to Thomas Jefferson when he said, "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." So, the truth is that we have to constantly keep guarding against any erosion of any freedom, and academic freedom is no exception.

The particular pressures that we’ve seen in the recent past, I have to stress, come from all ends of the political spectrum and all across the ideological spectrum. Unfortunately, what unites all of these disparate attacks is various individuals, including politicians, and media influencers, and social media influencers seeking to impose their particular preferred ideology on campuses.

So, lately we’ve seen a number of laws that are either passed or proposed by state legislatures or sometimes imposed by boards of regents or threatened by boards of regents that are trying to suppress teaching about really important topics, mainly race and gender, and the laws tend to be very broadly written that universities and sometimes local schools, higher education, secondary schools as well, should be barred from teaching divisive concepts such as critical race theory, whatever that is. And that, of course, has an enormous stifling effect on academic freedom, not only of the universities, the educational institutions, but also individual professors, and a stifling impact on the free speech rights of students and faculty members as well.

I should stress that First Amendment freedom of speech includes not only the right to convey information and ideas, but also the right to receive information and ideas. And obviously, all of these are at stake and especially important in the university setting.

Now, from the left end of the ideological spectrum, we get many, many reports and actual incidents that show an ideological orthodoxy. Yes, there will be teaching about issues such as race and gender, but too often, rather than being taught in the spirit of open inquiry and exploration, they are taught in an indoctrinating fashion that discourages or even punishes people from daring to dissent from whatever is the accepted orthodoxy on these issues on these campuses.

And I would simply refer anybody who’s interested to websites of a number of organizations that track these incidents, because sometimes there are claims of, "Oh, you’re exaggerating. It’s the same examples that are brought up over and over again," or sometimes the conservatives say, "Oh, it’s only conservatives who are being suppressed on campus," and sometimes liberals say the opposite, but sadly, you see all kinds of expression from all across the ideological spectrum being suppressed. One really good source of this information is FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. It is an ideologically neutral non-partisan organization.

And that is extremely troubling, because that means that we cannot have the candid exploration, and dialogue, and debate, and investigation that is the life blood of the search for truth, which is the major mission of the university.” – Dr. Nadine Strossen

One other point about academic freedom, and this I think is the overriding concern, Jed, every single survey, and there have been many, show that students and faculty members and administrators on campus are engaging in massive self-censorship. And this is for people, again, all age groups, all across the ideological spectrum, very much afraid of saying something that will be seen as being wrong or insensitive or offensive, even unintentionally so. And that is extremely troubling, because that means that we cannot have the candid exploration, and dialogue, and debate, and investigation that is the life blood of the search for truth, which is the major mission of the university.

So to try to deal with that problem, about six years ago now, an organization was founded in which I’ve been very active, called Heterodox Academy, and the purpose there is to try to bring about heterodoxy, a variety of views being represented on campus and being discussed on campus to resist the increasing orthodoxy and homogeneity of views that are being expressed.

0:06:19.2Comparing the past to the present

Jed: Well, that organization is one that has come across our radar at our company many times, and we think very highly of it, so I’m not surprised that you were one of the people masterminding it and getting it going, but you started off talking about sort of school boards and board of trustees suppressing free speech on campuses, and you probably... I was thinking, maybe you were thinking of things that are happening in Idaho suppressing discussion of critical race theory, then you moved on and talking about the other side of the political spectrum, people who have an orthodox way, there’s only one way to think, the orthodox way. And if you stray from that, you’ll be punished.

So you talked about both sides. Which one has changed the most since you got started at Harvard and first set foot on a campus? Has it changed quite a bit where things have shifted, or... I’m sort of leading you here, because I think it has definitely shifted probably since you were younger, but what do you think?

Nadine: Yeah, well, you’re younger than I am, so I have a longer historical perspective, and from that perspective, Jed, I actually see more of a constancy. So when I was in college, it was the orthodoxy among students was to be very radical, the organization SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, was very strong. The anti-war movement was not only very strong, but particularly strident, and very strong on my campus and others were attempts to, and often successful, to suppress speakers who had different views on the war.

I was against the war, even when I was in high school I was speaking against it, in college I went to demonstrations against it, but I still believed in free speech, and I thought it was wrong to try to deny students and faculty members and government officials who had different perspectives on these issues.

They were shouted down, they were deplatformed, there were physical attacks or attempts to physically attack some of these speakers, so I found myself then in the same position I am now, even if I happen to agree with the perspective that’s being voiced, I very much disagree with the censorial suppressive tactics. And then this came to a head again just about 10 years later, a little bit more than that, with the advent of so-called hate speech codes on college campuses. Those became in vogue starting in the late 1980s, early 1990s, and then suddenly we kept hearing about political correctness and the PC movement, and there was a lot of concern about ideological conformity on campus, and even to the point of even schools that had long supported freedom of speech literally trying to enforce codes on their students that they would not be able to say certain words, they would not be able to discuss certain ideas. The ACLU had to go to court to fight those, and that was what gave rise to this other organization I mentioned, FIRE.

So in my experience, quite frankly, it’s been cyclical. We are going through a very bad cycle now in terms of self-suppression. And I think what makes this one particularly pernicious is the rise of social media, to quote my friend and colleague, Jonathan Rauch , who has a wonderful new book out on all of these topics called The Constitution of Knowledge. He says that... He also acknowledges that these problems have been around forever. He wrote a book about this topic in 1993 called The Kindly Inquisitors, which sadly continues to be very timely today, but he observed that what’s different today is that social media has turbocharged the problem. And I think that’s right, so the ability to drum up cancel culture, pressures to penalize, ostracize, stigmatize somebody who has that wrong view are much more powerful than they were before these recent technological developments.

Jed: Well, so does it look like we’re going to be then stuck in this turbocharged cycle, and I see what you mean by it is cyclical, it’s happened before in the past, but are we now then stuck? Do we have any hope? What’s the future going to look like for us, Nadine?

Nadine: I have enormous hope, you can’t be an activist without being a congenital optimist. Interestingly enough, Jon Rauch, having studied all of these issues and written about them so thoughtfully, also reaches a conclusion of cautious optimism. And that is, it does refer to this concept that you and I have both invoked of the cyclical nature, sometimes the metaphor is used of the pendulum swinging. One of my heroes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg , loved to quote her husband, her beloved husband, saying that he thought that instead of the bald eagle, the pendulum should be the national symbol for the United States, because if you look at our history, sometimes the pendulum will swing too far in one direction and then it will over-correct in the other direction, but it’s constantly being adjusted.

And I think the more people become concerned about the problems that you and I have talked about, the more pushback there is going to be. And as I’ve already mentioned, a couple of organizations that are working in this space and they are proliferating every day.

Just earlier this year, a new organization, yet another academic freedom organization was found in which I’ve also been active, called the Academic Freedom Alliance. And that is intended to stand up for any faculty member anywhere whose free speech and academic freedom are being threatened even if we completely disagree with what that person is saying, if we object to what that person is saying, we will present a unified front in defense of this principle that ultimately benefits not only all of us, but our students and our society.

The Supreme Court has said that academic freedom is not a concern only of academia, it is really a concern of our overall society because of the critical role that campuses play in the search for truth, which is a fundamental in a democratic republic such as ours.

0:13:18.8What’s to come?

Jed: Absolutely. Well, it does seem like there could be some swinging back of the pendulum, some pushback from just people in the trenches, people grassroots.

But how is it going to look? Is it going to be pressure on the universities, is it going to be pressure on Facebook, Twitter, and the big tech companies? How do you think it’s going to play out?

Nadine: It’s got to be all of the above and many more. Since we’ve been focusing on academic freedom, let me say that we have to begin to lay the groundwork for understanding and exercising and supporting academic freedom at the earliest ages and stages of education.

Put aside the principal problems, as a strategic matter, we're never going to censor our way out of these problems. You're never going to completely squelch dangerous ideas, nor would we want to, given free speech.” – Dr. Nadine Strossen

And I’m really thrilled that, again because of the concern about power of social media to peddle conspiracy theories and disinformation and misinformation and hateful and extremist content, educators understand that we’re never going to... Put aside the principal problems, as a strategic matter, we’re never going to censor our way out of these problems. You’re never going to completely squelch dangerous ideas, nor would we want to, given free speech.

And so what you need is massive, massive education in terms of critical media skills, literacy skills in investigation, research, fact-checking. And these programs are being initiated even at the lowest levels of education with a lot of support from foundations and universities. And of course, parents even before their kids go to school, have to do whatever they can to be role models. And those of us who are fortunate to be professors have to be role models in how we conduct our classroom to do it in a non-indoctrinating way.

And I do have to say, Jed, one of the things that’s so interesting about these surveys that show that students are self-censoring and faculty members are as well, is that the students are not afraid of their professors. When you ask, "Why are you not discussing a certain subject?" It’s not because they’re afraid that their professor is going to give them a bad grade or their professor is going to accuse them of being a racist or a sexist. They are afraid of their peers, it is the peer pressure that is so powerful.

So I think that’s something that we have to try to get our hands on, again, at the earliest age. I know schools have been doing work on anti-bullying and anti-harassment, and I think that’s very much in the same spirit of every student’s learning to respect the dignity and individuality and humanity of everybody else.

…we have to do a better job of saying you also fully respect everybody and treat them with dignity, no matter what they believe, even if it's a very controversial or unpopular idea.” – Dr. Nadine Strossen

Not only, no matter who they are, I think we’ve been very good on focusing on the identity, you do not discriminate against somebody based on skin color, or religion and demographic characteristics. I think we have to do a better job of saying you also fully respect everybody and treat them with dignity, no matter what they believe, even if it’s a very controversial or unpopular idea.

Jed: And that is so hard, especially when you’re part of the larger group of people and they’re part of a smaller group of people, or you’re part of a group that you really feel comfortable with, and they’re part of a group that you see as being less good. It’s just so easy to want to not take them seriously, not give them respect, so... Yeah, it’s a lot of... Lot to ask of people, but I am glad that you were born with a lot of optimism, which you said is a prerequisite for being an activist. And I think it’s great, I think it’s really fun, and it’s fun that you’ve spoken now to people on our website, because I feel like we all can hear what you have to say, we can all hear the optimism in your voice and how you see the future. So, thank you.

Nadine: Thank you. Thank you so much, and I also want to say, Jed, one of my favorite sayings, I’m only going to paraphrase it, is that optimism even more than being the cause of activism is the result of activism. You can’t be an activist without being an optimist, in the sense that you see that progress is made. Sometimes it’s less fast than you would like, sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back, or vice versa, but with your eyes open, you have to acknowledge that progress is being made. So become an activist and that will make you an optimist, even if you’re not yet one.

0:18:21.8Sign off

Jed: That is great advice and a great way to end a wonderful interview. Thank you for spending the time with us today, Nadine, we’ve really appreciated it.

Nadine: Thank you, Jed and Karina, for your really important podcast and website.