As has been shown time and time again, the real threats to campus free speech are not student protestors, but rather the coordinated effort by right-wing donors, ideologues, and politicians to reshape college campuses in their preferred image. And it’s happening as we speak.
As The New York Times reported on Thursday, multiple universities have already imposed policies similar to University of Wisconsin’s “three-strikes” rule, which expels students after they’ve disrupted the freedom of expression of others for the third time. Such offenses include “protests and demonstrations that materially and substantially disrupt the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity.”
Republican-led state legislatures in Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina have imposed similar policies on public colleges and universities, and bills to establish campus speech guidelines are under consideration in at least seven other legislatures. These efforts, funded in part by big-money Republican donors, are part of a growing and well-organized campaign that has put academia squarely in the cross hairs of the American right.
These “free speech” efforts, which use the fuss around students protesting open racists like Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray as cover, are being pushed not by universities themselves, but by Republican-led state legislatures who adopt model legislation written by think tanks funded by wealthy right-wing donors.
Donald Trump’s administration has also picked up the ball and run with it, lumping opioid abuse and free speech as equal offenders in the college campus crisis:
The Trump administration has also picked up the baton. In March when the White House convened a discussion called “Crisis on College Campus,” it identified two coequal culprits: opioid abuse and suppression of free speech. This week the Justice Department formally filed a statement in support of a lawsuit challenging the University of Michigan for establishing “bias response teams,” which assist students who claim to have been victims of offensive conduct. The filing called the university’s policies “chilling” on free speech.
And Republican politicians on the federal level have even suggested that campuses start treating political diversity like racial diversity. In a New York Times forum last month, Senator Lamar Alexander made that point very clear:
It’s the perception among many conservatives, who are in the majority in Congress right now, that underrepresented points of view aren’t heard. I’ve talked that over with a number of college presidents, I don’t think it’s too hard to fix. I would apply the same sort of enthusiasm to underrepresented points of view that colleges have applied to underrepresented students.
The hysteria around this supposed oppression obscures where power actually lies and the real forces that shape campus ideology. It’s the kind of fake panic recently stoked, for instance, by Stanford senior fellow Niall Ferguson, who though he literally held the power to help decide which speakers come to campus, told undergraduates to do “opposition research” on a left-wing campus activist because he was afraid they would protest some of said speakers.
All of which misdirects from the fact that wealthy right-wing donors have poured money into colleges to fund programs and professors to push a libertarian agenda.
The right’s campaign against free speech in college campuses is only getting bigger and bolder. Let’s not make it easier for them.