The notion that conservatives are persecuted on campus has long been a central belief on the right. In the past few years, this concern escalated to a moral panic about the crisis of free speech on college campuses, in which socialist professors and coddled millennials obsessed with “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” are the chief villains in an anti–political correctness morality play.
It’s not that there’s nothing to this. It really is the case that conservative voices are underrepresented on campus. But skeptical observers, myself included, have long questioned whether high-profile incidents of conservative speakers being shouted down represent the norm on college campuses or amount to a crisis.
Instead, the free speech moral panic looks like part of a larger conservative project to delegitimize academia and assert control, in which preserving freedom of speech is a pretext rather than the ultimate goal. That’s why Turning Point USA, a leading campus conservative group, put together a “Professor Watchlist” of ideological deviants — not exactly what you’d do if you cared about free expression. Similarly, it’s why the Canary Mission, a campus pro-Israel group, put together a similar list of unacceptables that’s heavily made up of Muslim students.
Those of us inclined toward this view couldn’t have asked for a better demonstration than Laura Ingraham’s Thursday night Fox News show. Ingraham aired two segments about college campuses: One was about the importance of free speech. The other was bashing New York University for hiring controversial left-leaning journalist Talia Lavin to teach a course about reporting on the far-right. The segments, per Media Matters’ Andrew Lawrence, ran within 20 minutes of each other.
Anyone genuinely concerned with free expression on campus —concerned enough to air a full segment on it on a popular Fox show — wouldn’t try to enforce this kind of ideological line on who can and can’t be hired as an adjunct professor. Holding up Lavin’s course on national television as an outrage and casting her as part of a group of “journo-terrorists” opens up both her and NYU to abuse and harassment from Ingraham’s audience that would inevitably put pressure on the school to cancel the course out of PR and safety concerns.
But if you’re interested in asserting control over college campuses, or in pushing your ideological line rather than defending free speech across the board, then what Ingraham did made total sense.
What “campus free speech” concerns on the right are really about
It’s true that there are legitimate problems with open expression on campus.
Drawing lines on acceptable and unacceptable speech is tough for the brightest Supreme Court justices and political philosophers, let alone for university administrations. It’s also the case the colleges skew liberal and this can make a lot of conservatives feel uncomfortable on campus. The fact that many of the people involved in debating how to manage this tension are undergraduates — who aren’t always known for level-headed worldviews — makes the entire thing more complicated.
But the consensus among conservatives and anti-PC “Intellectual Dark Web” types that there is an urgent crisis, above and beyond the normal difficulties free speech questions present, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
The best work on this front, to my mind, has been done by Acadia University’s Jeffrey Sachs. In a piece published by the center-right Niskanen Center, Sachs marshaled a wealth of data to show that the number of free speech-threatening incidents on US college campuses is small and actually declining. Sachs’s chart of data on campus speaker disinvitations shows that last year, such incidents were at their lowest number in 10 years:
Similarly, faculty firings over politically controversial speech were down in 2018, and roughly the same number of liberal faculty members were dismissed as conservatives.
The absolute number of such incidents — even in peak years — is also extremely low. We’re talking about dozens of incidents per year, maximum, at the roughly 3,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States (and nearly all of the attention paid to campus speech issues has focused on four-year colleges).
When I spoke to Sachs over the phone on Thursday, he told me he’s genuinely concerned about self-censorship — students and faculty, particularly conservatives, being afraid to express their opinion on campus and thus staying quiet.
But the concern he and others have about the free speech moral panic is that it can be used to justify interventions from the government to “defend” conservatives that end up actually curtailing campus free speech.
The policies allegedly supporting free speech are more likely to curtail it
On Thursday, for example, President Trump issued an executive order that could in theory strip universities of federal funding if they are insufficiently protective of free speech (in the federal government’s opinion). If implemented, this could end up making universities so terrified of running afoul of the feds that they would harshly limit students’ right to protest — for fear that protests of conservative speakers would come across as anti-free speech and cost them money.
That’s ideological enforcement, not a protection of free speech — and Ingraham’s “free speech” segment praised it, naturally.
In practice, Trump’s order is so vaguely worded as to be toothless. But Trump promised during a signing statement that it would be the first of several actions his administration takes on campus free speech — suggesting the possibility of overreach is real.
Indeed, you’ve already seen this on the state level.
There, governments have passed laws and issued regulations on the issue, efforts that the New York Times reports are “funded in part by big-money Republican donors” in a “growing and well-organized campaign that has put academia squarely in the crosshairs of the American right.” In Wisconsin, the strictest of these states, rules drafted by the state university’s board of regents allow students to be expelled if they are found to have disrupted the speech of other students three times — a targeting of activists that represents a clear threat to student free speech and political activity.
This is not what a value-neutral, principled defense of free speech looks like. The executive order signing statement was pocketed with comments from conservative students who felt their rights had been repressed, with not a single mention of the professor threatened over a mean tweet about Barbara Bush or the scholar forced to resign for a joke about white genocide.
There is a longstanding conservative belief that universities, Hollywood, and other cultural institutions are fatally undermining conservative political efforts to save American political culture. The late provocateur Andrew Breitbart turned this idea into an oft-cited maxim: “Politics is downstream from culture.”
By this, Breitbart meant that the balance of power in day-to-day politics is determined, in the long run, by the cultural ideas that shape the way people approach politics — from Hollywood films with social justice messages to universities teaching left-wing ideas about race and religion to mega-brands like Gillette making ads about “toxic masculinity.” Under this worldview, the power of conservative political organizing is swamped by a culture and society that is trending increasingly liberal.
It is the quest to undermine the allegedly nefarious academic influence on American culture, and not the good-faith concerns about free expression you see from free speech advocates, that is really driving the conservative movement’s interests here.
Ingraham’s show Thursday night and Trump’s executive order hours before laid bare why the conservative movement in general is so obsessed with this issue: not free speech, but power.