Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Audrey Pietrucha

Our dystopian world

Every faction conditions its members to think and act a certain way. And most people do it. For most people, it's not hard to learn, to find a pattern of thought that works and stay that way. But our minds move in a dozen different directions. We can't be confined to one way of thinking, and that terrifies our leaders. It means we can't be controlled. And it means that no matter what they do, we will always cause trouble for them. - Tobias, Divergent

At first the movie Divergent appears to be a dystopian fantasy, a story about a world where people are divided into factions and are, for the most part, content to stay within them. The five factions - Dauntless, Abnegation, Erudite, Amity and Candor – each represent personality traits for which their members have tested and been found to have an aptitude. Dauntless are brave, Abnegation are selfless, Erudite are bookish and intelligent, Amity are kind and peace-loving and Candor are honest and truth seeking. The trouble is, some members of the society do not fit neatly into any one category. They are Divergent.

Though the world of Divergent is fictional, it contains obvious parallels to our own society. What is astonishing is that we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions, even volunteer for placement. We have our political factions, our racial factions, our religious factions. We line up behind our favorite sports teams and taunt our rivals’ fans, we feel superior or inferior based on which schools we attend or which stores we shop. Southerners aren’t as good as Northerners who are as good as New Englanders who aren’t as good as Vermonters. Like amoeba we seem able to continually divide and separate ourselves. Naturally, whichever groups in which we find ourselves tend to be the better ones.

While this human tendency to divide into groups or factions or clans, whichever term applies, is damaging and limiting to us as individuals, it is devastating to our society on a political level. Once we have identified ourselves as belonging to one faction we often stop thinking about issues and allow our “leaders” to do the thinking for us. Thus, when a Republican president runs up huge budget deficits the members of his supposedly fiscally conservative political faction are ominously silent. When Democrat president expands policies that allow American citizens to be spied upon, his normally civil liberties-loving minions see, hear and speak no evil. This is extremely helpful to those in power but ruinous to a system of government which requires an informed and engaged electorate.

Equally destructive is the tendency of politicians to take cover behind their faction of choice whenever they are questioned about their policies or actions. So someone like Eric Holder, whose stint as U.S. Attorney General has been fraught with bad decisions, cries racism when he is questioned on them. In our group-identity-driven political atmosphere people aren’t allowed to disagree with those who are different without being accused of hating the entire faction.

Divergence is extremely dangerous.

Perhaps the worst consequence of our herd mentality, though, is how we treat those who express viewpoints outside what the majority, or often a very vocal minority, considers acceptable thought. Someone like Andrew Cuomo, who is supposed to serve as governor to all New Yorkers, can actually say those he defines as “extreme conservatives,” including people who are pro-life and pro-second amendment, have no place in New York State and receive little backlash from his fellow “liberals.” Though we give lip-service to the glories of intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas, in reality dissenting nails are quickly hammered down when they dare to pop up. Physical hammers are unnecessary, of course, since name-calling words like “wacko,” “nut job” and “extremist” suffice.

Divergent makes the point that the traits that define the factions, and many traits besides, are part of human nature and no matter how much we try to isolate and extinguish them, they will remain. We are not one dimensional. We are all, actually, Divergent and capable of developing a myriad of character traits.
Our task is to cultivate and magnify those that contribute to morally and culturally healthy individuals and societies.

I think we’ve made a mistake ...We’ve all started to put down the virtues of the other factions in the process of bolstering our own.  I don’t want to do that.  I want to be brave, and selfless, and smart, and honest, and kind . . .

So should we all.

Audrey Pietrucha is a member of Vermonters for Liberty and a proud Divergent. She can be reached at

Friday, February 28, 2014

Reflections on the Tea Party movement

A couple of weeks ago, on February 19 to be exact, an important anniversary passed virtually unnoticed. It was the five-year anniversary of the day on which ordinary working American began their political education when they rallied behind Rick Santelli’s cry for a modern-day Tea Party.

Certainly Santelli did not know what he unleashed when he accused the government of promoting bad behavior through the “Homeowners Affordability and Stability” act (gotta love the newsspeak-inspired names of legislation – Orwell’s Ministry of Truth would be proud). In reality he did not start the protest movement that would become the Tea Party, he merely named it. The concerns, the frustration, and the anger that eventually exploded on April 15 of 2009 had been bubbling and churning below the surface since the previous September, when George W. Bush decreed some banks were “too big to fail” and we had to “abandon free market principles to save the free market system” (score another one for the Ministry of Truth).

So Tax Day became a rallying point for a group of people who were tired of watching the fruits of their labor confiscated and redistributed to those who had been foolish or reckless or generally irresponsible with other peoples’ money. Their anger was not directed so much against other Americans or even the corporations that benefitted from Washington’s calculated largess but Washington itself. It had become clear that the principles that had guided the United States from its inception, the carefully-crafted balance of freedom and responsibility, had been usurped by a corrupt system where fiscal populism and crony capitalism ensured the survival of the political class and the rest of us could be damned.

So, naïve bumpkins that they were, the members of the Tea Party movement went to work. They organized rallies, painted signs, lined up speakers, bought their “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and boned up on the Constitution. Then they rallied by the millions to show the politicians they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

They expected a fair hearing, though not without pushback from the politicians and their lackeys in the media. They were, after all, a threat to the status quo. They didn’t expect to be called Astroturf by a woman with so much plastic in her cheeks and forehead it could have covered the field at Yankee Stadium. They didn’t expect to be called vulgar names and be accused of racism and stupidity. And they sure didn’t expect to be on the receiving end of so much hatred and vitriol from their fellow citizens, for whose rights and freedom they were fighting.

That is when their real education began. They learned that Washington’s tentacles reach far and wide and deep. They are in academia, industry, for-profits and non-profits, state and local government. They hold our pension fund, our health insurance, and our safety nets. Far too many of us are somehow tied to and/or dependent on a federal government that needs us to need them. Our illusion of being a free people is just that – an illusion. Such a dependent people can never be said to be free.

What is even more frightening is that the coming generations are already ensnared. The debt the Tea Party protested against has only grown larger over the past five years, to where it now stands at $17 trillion, a number is so large it triggers a collective eye glaze-over. Welcome to the world, baby American – your share of our nation’s debt now stands at $55,000.

The Tea Party was right to be concerned and to point out how treacherous is the path on which we’re heading. But they are also human and they got tired. They got tired of being attacked, of being called names, of being sneered at by the disingenuous among us who hid their own stake in Washington’s continued fiscal folly. They got tired of having their common-sense message distorted and turned into something it was not.

Those that started the Tea Party have mostly retired from civic life. They are still active, but their struggle is quieter and more personal. They’re taking care of their families and businesses, getting their own houses in order. They are demonstrating alternatives to government dependence and trying to build new infrastructures within their communities that will hold up should the fiscal crises they anticipate comes to pass.

Some still hope they can change the system for the better. They call and write their representatives. They offer financial and moral support to candidates who understand government’s only true obligation is to ensure personal and economic freedom and a sound economic and debt-free future. Sometimes they run for office themselves.

There are stalwarts out there who keep up the good fight. They have never lost sight that this is a battle for future generations and the future of the American experiment. They have learned what and what not to expect. They expect to eventually be proven right. They certainly never expect an apology.

Audrey Pietrucha is a member of Vermonters for Liberty. She dedicates this column to those who continue to fight the good fight.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Serious Look at Poverty

Audrey Pietrucha

T’is the season when many of us are swimming in the sea of excess. A few weeks after frantically trying to find the perfect gifts for friends and family members who already have everything they need we’re back at the stores buying plastic bins to hold our holiday haul. After stuffing ourselves with cookies and bounteous meals we’re sucking in our stomachs and promising to lose those extra pounds. Some of us are swearing off alcohol or cigarettes or chocolate and vowing to live lives that are both simpler and healthier.

So Pope Francis’ recent remarks on global poverty have provoked emotional responses from people on both side of the wealth divide. Both the pontiff’s remarks and the issues they address are nuanced and complex and deserve similar serious treatment.

We should begin with acknowledgement of the good news in the global economic situation: worldwide poverty is on the decline. Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz of the Brookings Institution have studied the global economy and found the “rise of emerging economies has led to a dramatic fall in global poverty.” They estimate between 2005 and 2010 the total number of poor people around the world fell by nearly half a billion, from over 1.3 billion in 2005 to under 900 million in 2010.

“Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history,” Chandy and Gertz said. “Never before have so many people been lifted out of poverty over such a brief period of time.”

Poverty does, of course, still exist and in greater numbers than with which any feeling human being is comfortable. Its causes on both a national and global scale are many and diverse. It is not wholly the result of laziness on the part of the poor or greed and selfishness on the part of the rich. That some of those traits exist at both ends of the personal economic spectrum is true, but so do the traits of generosity, compassion and industriousness. A society is comprised of individuals and each brings his or her own personal circumstances and responses to life experience to the economic table. Some of these reactions and actions will serve to uplift and strengthen both the individual and society, some will tear down. A large part of our challenge is to identify and encourage positive outcomes.

So Pope Francis’ admonition to world leaders to become involved in the redistribution of wealth was disappointingly one-dimensional. It was also most likely the exact opposite of what they should be doing. Time and again, studies indicate it is economic freedom, not government control, that best alleviates poverty and creates prosperous societies.

For almost 20 years Canada’s Fraser Institute has been studying the global economy and releasing an index of world economic freedom. The index measures the size and scope of government, adherence to the rule of law, access to sound money, freedom to trade internationally and the regulation of credit, labor and business. The institute has identified four cornerstones of economic freedom, which are: 

·        Personal choice rather than collective choice
·        Voluntary exchange coordinated by markets rather than allocation via the political process
·        Freedom to enter and compete in markets
·        Protection of persons and their property from aggression by others

Nations whose governments honor the values embodied in the four cornerstones are consistently most prosperous while nations with less freedom are also least prosperous. What’s more, the poor in the economically free nations are far better off financially than the middle class in nations with repressive economic systems.

In his remarks Pontiff warned against “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power,” but then seemed to relinquish that power to the state, which he said was “charged with vigilance for the common good.” Centuries of wars, man-caused famines and other atrocities bring into question the state’s ability to discern what is actually good for the people. Placing economic power in the hands of those whose actions have proven they do not deserve it seems the pinnacle of “crude and naïve trust.” Haven’t volumes of history as well as uncomfortably recent scandals taught us that? Whether it is the targeting of people and political groups by the IRS, the massive collection of personal data by the NSA and even New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s possible involvement in punishing political enemies don’t we have daily proof that for too many of our so-called leaders politics is a game of chess and we are the pawns?

Political power and economic power are all too often one and the same. Undesirable economic circumstances that are often blamed on capitalism are most often the result of collusion between those seeking political favor and those dispensing it. A market that is dependent on government involvement is not free by any means. Governments should limit their roles to protecting people’s rights to interact and trade with each other peacefully. Power of any variety should be spread among as many people as possible, with individuals retaining the most with regards to the governance of their own lives.

Audrey Pietrucha is on the executive board of Vermonters for Liberty. She can be reached at

Monday, November 25, 2013

Will Obamacare resuscitate freedom?

Audrey Pietrucha

It already does

Providing health care to a population doesn’t have to be complicated, but we have made it so. We added third parties in the form of either private of government-provided insurance payment. We added exchanges and multi-level plan choices. We added tax credits and subsidies, navigators and multiple government and quasi-governmental agencies to the picture. What could have been a simple line drawing has turned into a Where’s Waldo book.  

Perhaps I should use the pronoun “they” rather than “we” because we, the people, did not really have much say in this. The Affordable Care Act was forced on us at the federal level just as Green Mountain Care is being forced on Vermonters. We, the people, have been taken out of this equation entirely. Those of us who were happy with our health care plans, the vast majority of Americans, are losing them. The State has decided it is better able to determine our needs and has taken away our choices. Our governments, which were originally instituted to protect our liberties, now take them from us.

The chaos that has resulted from the roll-out of the ACA, or Obamacare, as it is popularly known, would be comical if it weren’t so frightening. Billions of dollars – 600,000,000 and counting – have been spent on the exchange website alone and the result has been disastrous. No need to go into the stories here – they are many, widespread and well-known. And this is just the beginning, the individual plans. When employer-based plans join the mix next year the confusion and chaos will likely grow exponentially. Suffice it to say a private company would never allow such a shoddy product on the market. If they did you can bet Congress would be hauling their executives in for investigative hearings faster than you could say “Big insurance.”

We haven’t even gotten to the substance of how this legislation will work (or not). Once we do, more nasty surprises assuredly await. Patient records and payment forms will create a labyrinth of unmanageable paperwork. Privacy will become a thing of the past as government bureaucrats from multiple agencies, not excepting the IRS, will have access to our personal health and financial information. As for choosing or keeping our healthcare professionals – that remains to be seen but, based on what has happened so far, is by no means guaranteed.

There was a time when medical care was regarded as the consumer good it is. A doctor, a midwife or a well-trained nurse provided care and in return was given reasonable payment, something mutually agreed on by provider and recipient. Sometimes that payment was in the form of eggs or firewood but usually it was in the form of cash, an affordable one-time payment or an amount that could be paid over time. The system worked well until outside parties began intervening a hundred years ago, beginning with the regulation of medical schools (hint: the main beneficiaries of these regulations were not patients but doctors seeking to stifle competition). The proliferation of health insurance benefits during World War II as an end-run around government-imposed wage controls greatly expanded the third-party payment system. Today third-parties pay the vast majority of our doctor bills and having someone else pay for one’s medical services has somehow evolved into a right.

The practice of medicine has undergone incredible changes over the past century and modern practices must be accommodated. That being acknowledged, there is every reason to believe that, with a few updates, a market-based system could work again. One of the first might be re-introducing actual risk-based insurance. What we have now is actually a payment service. A free-market system would eliminate insurance for all but catastrophic care. Patients would pay for routine visits and would have access to price information. Providers would compete for patients by offering either lower fees or superior service. Insurance would be detached from employment and all plans would be individual or family plans. Under such a system new ideas such as subscription services might become popular or former arrangements such as mutual aid groups formed by churches, community organizations, etc. might be revisited. Civil society’s ability to creatively solve problems knows no bounds.

Except when it is inhibited by the bureaucratic power structure that has become our government. The health care schemes we are faced with actually move away from individual freedom of choice and toward government’s unimaginative and immoral fallback position, the use of force.  Neither President Obama nor Governor Shumlin gravitated toward free-market solutions; rather they are engaged in behavior more befitting dictators than public servants. Mandates should not be part of the conversation but they are, in fact, the bulk of it. Free people should not be compelled to purchase something they do not want and will not use, yet that is exactly what it happening. If nothing else, Obamacare and its evil twin, Green Mountain care, have lay to rest any notion that Americans in general and Vermonters in particular are free.

Yet the ACA may prove useful. It has provided the best American illustration to date of the folly of central planning. A successful system of exchange requires the input of the millions of people of which it is composed. A few people at the top, no matter how educated or experienced they are, can never anticipate every need and every action that spontaneously work together to create an effective arrangement. Maybe this debacle is the wake-up call we need. The horrific implementation of this latest one-size-fits-all government scheme might be a blessing in disguise if Americans once again discover freedom, with all its warts, still provides the fairest and most satisfying framework to society.

Audrey Pietrucha is on the executive board of Vermonters for Liberty. She can be reached at

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Surviving the Shutdown

by Audrey Pietrucha

If you had told a 19th century American that the federal government had been forced into a partial shutdown, he or she would have probably stared at you blankly for a moment, then shrugged and said “So what?”

Today, of course, the reaction is a bit different. Washington D.C. and its dealings, or lack thereof, are the favorite topic of conversation among the chattering class. Those of us who are constantly exposed to their diatribes through the spoken, printed and digitized word can’t help but believe that if Washington is not working, America itself is on the verge of collapse. Though all around us we see evidence that life, indeed, does go on without the blessing of the federal government, we can’t help but be uneasy. Disaster is right around the corner, right?

Not necessarily. Though modern Americans have been trained to look to Washington first whenever there is a problem, in truth there are many ways to meet challenges, most of which do not involve government at all. In civil society we have families, neighbors, friends, church communities, civic organizations and charitable groups among which to help and be helped. With such a cornucopia of options, it’s a shame that government even comes to mind when solutions are sought.

Some would argue government is the most efficient way to centralize and solve problems. I would vehemently disagree with that (the health insurance exchange debacle comes to mind) but even if we cede that point, is efficiency always the most desirable outcome? Perhaps when the focus is primarily material, but if the long-term well-being of individuals and society are considered it seems the personal and societal growth that comes through organic, creative community-based actions benefits everyone now and later.

Too many of today’s centralized, top-down solutions involve taking money from one group and giving it to another, with a big chunk skimmed off the top for bureaucrats and politicians. There is no personal interaction, no sense of gratitude, appreciation or obligation and everyone is left dissatisfied. What’s worse, the problems are never truly solved – more money is always needed. Eventually the money runs out and we have places like Detroit, a city that is currently bankrupt.

Detroit’s bankruptcy has resulted in few city services. Despite this lack, people continue to live and work in Detroit. Since they know they can’t rely on government to solve problems, many residents are taking matters into their own hands. People such as Tom Nardone, who hated to see the parks and playgrounds in his neighborhood fall into disrepair when the city stopped maintaining them.  He was pleasantly surprised when dozens of volunteers answered his invitation to take this task on. Now “The Mower Gang” regularly “kicks grass” around Detroit’s abandoned parks with semi-monthly mowing parties and other improvement projects. Sure, it helps the kids but it is arguably the adults who really benefit as they build friendships and leave a legacy of community service. The Mower Gang is a timely example of achieving cooperation without coercion.

This used to be the American way. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked upon it in Democracy in America, his 1831 treatise on life in our then-young republic. Americans of all ages, conditions and dispositions formed numerous and diverse association, Tocqueville observed, accomplishing everything from building inns and churches to circulating books, founding hospitals and hosting entertainments.

“I met with several kinds of associations in America of which I confess I had no previous notion,” Tocqueville wrote. “And I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them to voluntarily pursue it.”

We have been robbed of our cultural heritage by a large, centralized government which insists on trying to do everything and then holds us hostage when the political process fails. The wheels of this most recent failure were set in motion several years ago when an unpopular law with the Orwellian name of the Affordable Care Act was muscled through without bipartisan support. Legislation that initiates sweeping social change requires unity and Obamacare has never achieved that. It doesn’t help that many are being exempted from the law such as certain corporations, some unions and even government workers. The divide between the ruling elite and the rest of us continues to widen and such events as the current government shutdown are merely symptoms of how far we have strayed from our foundational moorings.

This is one crisis, though, which truly shouldn’t go to waste. The Chinese symbol for crisis is composed of two characters, one representing opportunity and the other meaning danger. The opportunity before Americans is to take back our place as proponents of a robust civil society in which families, churches, neighborhoods and community organizations once again provide the bulk of assistance and service. The danger is that the more we take care of ourselves and each other the more we’ll discover we don’t need Washington nearly as much as they want us to believe.

Audrey Pietrucha is a member of the executive board of Vermonters for Liberty. She can be reached at

Friday, January 25, 2013

Audrey Pietrucha

Guns and spoons
If I go to the freezer every night and scoop up a large bowl of chocolate marshmallow ice cream, after a while I will start to gain weight. Whose fault is that – mine or the spoon’s?

Clearly the fault is my own since a spoon is an inanimate object with no will of its own. It is merely a tool used by humans in their quest to feed themselves. If I took all the spoons out my drawer but really wanted some ice cream I could contrive to use something else with which to scoop it. A fork might not be as efficient but could still get the job done. To paraphrase a trite but true phrase, spoons don’t fatten people, people fatten people.

Yet after last month’s tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut most of the national discussion has centered on tools. Realistically, we cannot remove all the tools that are used to murder people. A look at the history of mass murder (defined as four or more people killed) shows people who want to kill others will find the way to do so.

Grant Duwe, author of Mass Murder in the United States: A History, says mass murders are neither unique to America nor the modern era. Two terms that mean to go on a killing spree, amok and berserk, have been around for centuries, he said. Throughout this time mass murders have been accomplished with a variety of weapons: guns, of course, but also swords, axes, knives, arson and explosives.

The first school shooting in America occurred in the summer of 1764 when four Lenape American Indians shot a teacher and 10 students dead in Greencastle, Pennsylvania. More than a century passed until another school shooting occurred. Since then, the United States has experienced two waves of mass shootings. The first occurred in the 1920s and 30s with 1929 having the highest recorded mass murder rate in history. This wave was characterized by family killings and felony-related massacres (think Al Capone, gangsters and prohibition).

The 40s and 50s were a tranquil period with regards to mass public shootings in America. Ironically, this was also a period when rifle clubs and guns themselves were in almost every high school. It was common for students to hunt in the morning and leave their guns hanging in cars and trucks parked in school lots all day long. Competitive shooters brought rifles into school and left them in their lockers or with a homeroom teacher. My research did not uncover one mass shooting at the hands of a rifle club member.

The second wave of mass shootings stretched from the mid-sixties to the early 1990s and began with the infamous University of Texas incident in which a student climbed a 27-story tower and shot and killed 14 people and wounded 31. It wasn’t until the 1990s, though, that mass public shootings really started to tick upward. There were more than 40 mass public shootings in that that decade but the years 2000 to 2009 saw a drop as the number fell below 30. This past year, however, we witnessed seven mass public shootings. Suddenly it is starting to seem like these awful events are far too common.

Yet what gun laws have changed over those years that have made weapons more accessible? If anything, gun laws have become stricter over the past few decades yet those with murder on their minds and in their hearts find access to weapons, either by legal or illegal means.

This brings us to the one constant in these horrific crimes – people. Mentally unstable and disturbed individuals have always existed and their illness sometimes (though actually very seldom) reveals itself in murderous behavior. The tools they use vary from crime to crime and all the laws in the world seem unable to prevent someone who really wants to kill from doing so. Think about it – is someone intent on  breaking God’s or nature’s law against taking life really going to be concerned about breaking man-made laws about which tools he cannot use?

It is especially frustrating to watch lawmakers in Vermont, many of whom don’t seem to know a magazine from a clip or an automatic from a semi-automatic weapon, jump on the anti-gun bandwagon. Vermont does not have a gun problem and many would say this is precisely because our gun laws are so liberal; there is respect for firearms here. According to FBI statistics Vermont has one of the lowest rates of criminal firearms usage in the nation and our murder rate involving guns is an extremely low 0.75, making us 44th out of 50 states. Robberies and assaults involving guns also rank very low here. So why do lawmakers and city councils feel it necessary to fix what obviously isn’t broken?

Worse, emotionally-driven laws punish responsible citizens and gun owners but do little to inhibit those who disregard laws. They also make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to protect themselves. Incidents of lives being saved by gun are many but receive little attention from the media or the politicians. Just like spoons, guns can be used for good or evil.

As with any situation involving human beings, circumstances surrounding shooting incidents are complex. We can never predict and prevent the many factors that lead to someone taking murderous actions. We might feel better as a society when we put a bandage on the collective emotional wound these incidents open but we rarely put in place measures that actually prevent more. People have been finding ways to kill each other for centuries. Unfortunately, laws won’t change that.


Audrey Pietrucha is a member of the executive board of Vermonters for Liberty. She can be reached at



Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Closed mouths, closed minds

Audrey Pietrucha

What happens to a society when the free expression of ideas is curtailed and debate is strongly discouraged? Surprisingly, experiments in exactly this are conducted daily on American colleges and university campuses. The results are important because their impact is felt far beyond the halls of academia. In Vermont, especially, the lack of respect for different viewpoints and diverse ideas is increasingly apparent.

Greg Lukianoff’s new book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the end of American Debate is an important study of the chilling effect speech codes and other anti-free expression constructs are having on students, faculty and American society. As president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, FIRE, Lukianoff spends his days delving into complaints, dissecting speech codes and initiating legal action to halt violations of students’ first amendment rights.

At a recent book forum Lukianoff, who specializes in first amendment law and describes himself as a moderate Democrat, said he was unprepared for the extent of abuses he has encountered in his eleven years with FIRE. And while attempts to suppress speech have always come from both ends of the political spectrum, the left-ward tilt on most campuses means libertarian and conservative religious and political thought are increasingly disallowed in the academic arena of ideas.

Lukianoff began his remarks by reciting the disturbing findings of a 2010 survey conducted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. Twenty-four hundred students and nine thousand campus employees were asked the questions “Is it safe to hold unpopular opinions on this campus?” Only thirty-five percent of the students answered the question affirmatively, with more optimistic (or naïve) first-year students saying “yes” forty-percent of the time and more experienced (or jaded) fourth-year students registering at only thirty percent. Most troubling of all, only seventeen percent faculty members, who should know the school at which they work best, felt it was safe to hold an unpopular opinions.

In Lukianoff’s experience, students have cause to worry. He detailed cases of students who were kicked out of schools and/or dorms because of mild protests against pet administration projects or jokes regarded as hurtful or offensive. Campus speech codes, one of which the FIRE website hires each month, rely on ambiguous and subjective language which can be twisted to make just about any remark fit. The lack of debate and discussion professors now note in their classrooms is due to a lack of courage rather than a lack of knowledge or opinion. Those whose ideas conflict with the powers-that-be have learned to keep it to themselves and it is hard to blame them when the costs of disagreement run so high. Just a few students need to feel the force of administrative muscle to keep the rest in line.

The first amendment is not needed to protect popular speech; rather, it was explicitly written to defend minority ideas and dissent. The law, Lukianoff said, is strong in protection of offensive and challenging speech but that does not prevent colleges from leveling frivolous charges and dispensing with due process in cases against students. That universities almost always lose these cases does not, unfortunately, encourage a more circumspect approach to speech suppression. Neither does it often embolden administrative staff, faculty or even other students to speak out against an action that they know is unconstitutional. Apathy, Lukianoff said, is the order of the day.
Worse than that, censorship is beginning to be accepted as normal, even virtuous. Today’s college students, Lukianoff said, are far too trusting of authority and seem ready to assume similar authoritarian postures when it comes to differences of opinion. College newspaper runs are destroyed regularly when they contain articles some find offensive, insulting or damaging. Some of the free speech walls

that have been erected on campuses where Lukianoff said students share many humorous, wise and interesting thoughts, are sometimes torn down by other students. The designated free-speech zones on some campuses are thought to be acceptable as long as the rules governing them are enforced impartially. Even students who claim to be aware of civil liberties issue seem unaware that having to obtain permission from a governing authority to engage in free speech is itself a violation of the spirit of the first amendment. It is also antithetical to the academic ideal of respectful and honest debate and discussion.

 The effects of these policies are already felt in society at large. At a time when more Americans that ever hold college degrees our conversations are remarkably void of intellectual and interesting content. Critical thinking skills have declined and society is polarized. People who hold views contrary to those more widely-accepted, or at least more loudly proclaimed, confine their discussions to groups of like-minded individuals rather than risk the insults and attacks that often come in conversation with those who hold differing views. The ethic of seeking out the intelligent person with whom you disagree has been replaced by the intellectually-lazy tactic of assigning motives to people we don’t even know and calling them names.

This is a real concern in Vermont, where politics lean so heavily left that people with more centrist views have learned to self-censor. Our little state is quickly becoming what Lukianoff described as a John Stuart Mill nightmare, a place where people believe they are right about everything without having actually considered alternative ideas. A society where ideas cease be explored and challenged stagnates. When mouths are closed, minds are closed also.

Audrey Pietrucha is a member of the executive board of Vermonters for Liberty. She can be reached at