Liberal Handwringing About 'Free Speech' On Campus

“In this week’s “Sunday Review” the centrist New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, echoes his colleague Nicholas Kristof and others in tisk-tisking “academia” for its “intolerance.”

Formulaically rehashing the recent incident at Middlebury College in Vermont where students had the audacity to shout down the notoriously racist pseudo-scholar Charles Murray, Bruni whines: “[I]n too many instances the groves of academe are better at pumping their denizens full of an easy, intoxicating fervor than preparing them for constructive engagement in a society that won’t echo their convictions the way their campuses do.”

This brand of hackneyed liberal handwringing about the “free speech” rights on college campuses of racists, misogynists, and homophobes in a period where real live Nazis and white supremacists are gaining legitimacy and power in our society points to one of the key weaknesses of liberalism in America in 2017. If this is going to be the state of liberal commentary in the Trump Era we are truly doomed.

We live in a period where a small group of Far Right corporate oligarchs and bankers has seized power. The House, the Senate, the Presidency, and 33 state governments are now under Republican control. They have their own propaganda ministry that is so sophisticated and persuasive it has successfully undermined the science of climate change as well as the citizenry’s ability to discern fact from falsehood. There’s a white supremacist sitting on the National Security Council (Stephen K. Bannon) who holds delusions about sparking a “clash of civilizations,” and other authoritarians like Steven Miller, Sebastian Gorka, and Kellyanne Conway sitting clustered around Trump at the pinnacle of U.S. power.

The opposition Democratic party is in such a state of disarray it doesn’t know what to do and so far has stumbled in its efforts to divert us from the path toward a weird version of American fascism the Trump plutocrats are leading us down. The Southern Poverty Law Center tells us the country has not seen this kind of an uptick in hate attacks in decades; Jewish cemeteries and mosques have been hit with vandalism and people have been shot dead or beaten for no other reason than appearing “foreign.”

And Bruni and other purveyors of liberal opinion feel compelled to take up precious column inches whining about college students violating the “free speech” of racists, misogynists, and homophobes? Are there not more pressing matters to worry about these days?

Student clubs at colleges and universities should be free to invite whoever they want to speak at their campuses and say anything they want. But we shouldn’t be surprised when protests erupt after a club asks a known racist or fascist or misogynist to speak on campus.

What we’ve seen lately at U.C. Davis, U.C. Berkeley (where the College Republicans brought Milo Pedophilious on campus) and Middlebury College (where the College Republicans asked the discredited Social Darwinist Charles Murray to speak) is a contrived pattern of agitation: A right-wing student group purposely invites a rhetorical bomb-thrower to campus to inject hate speech into an otherwise hate-free environment.

The event sparks a predictable backlash among students (especially those from racial and ethnic minorities who feel under personal attack) who exercise their right to protest. A confrontation ensues that allows the speaker to claim “victim” status and denounce the students for their “intolerance.” This cycle is followed by handwringing commentary from “liberals” like Frank Bruni and Nicholas Kristof about how “political correctness” on campuses is eroding “free speech.”

It’s the old Republican political trick of “punch, parry, kick” that Ian Haney Lopez unpacks in his book Dog Whistle Politics (2014). The “punch” comes when a right-wing campus group purposely invites someone well known for their racist, misogynist, or fascist views.

There follows a negative response from a large number of students because having fascists or Klansmen or misogynists come to campus tends to make people angry. This is when the right-wingers “parry,” feigning “shock” at the reaction.

Then comes the swift “kick” in the butt where the people who started the whole confrontation in the first place denounce colleges and universities and academia as a whole, their students, and administrators as being jack-booted thugs trampling “free speech.” (Liberals like Bruni and Kristof take the bait, pile on, and end up making the right-wingers’ argument for them that gets blared all over right-wing talk radio and TV as well as Breitbart, The Daily Caller, The Blaze, and other propaganda sites.)

We need to find a way to break free from this insipid formula.

A Simple Solution

Faculty, students, and administrators should come up with a structure where the sharing of ideas is protected without opening up the institution to being used as a punching bag for off-campus politics. They should provide an environment for invited speakers, be they fascists, Klansmen, or misogynists that is more in alignment with the scholarly discourse of higher education.

These speaking events can be structured as “forums” (or “fora”) that serve an educational purpose for students and the community at large without opening up the campus to smear campaigns. All invited speakers should be held to the same standard where they minimally comport themselves as people who genuinely want to communicate their ideas, instead of merely inciting conflict. They can share a stage with another speaker chosen by students in a format where “both sides” are aired, with a respected person from the college to moderate the discussion.

The school can create a series of these events where various campus groups can invite any speaker they want alternating the host clubs in a democratic, open, civil, and fair manner. If a college club wants to invite a fascist, racist, or misogynist speaker then he or she would be part of a presentation where another group can nominate a non-fascist, non-racist, or non-misogynist participant who is given a chance to respond.

This simple structure would prevent off-campus bomb-throwers from coming to the university grounds with the aim of causing a ruckus, followed by denouncing academia in a vicious cycle that’s only going to get worse in the Trump era. (There’s already a retro-McCarthyist far-right “student” group, financed through a 501(c)(3), calling itself “Turning Point USA” that has put professors with whom they disagree on a “watch list.”)

Faculty, students, and administrators can find a way to make these controversial speaking events more like dialogues, instead of monologues. They can schedule several of them each academic year where student clubs with differing ideological viewpoints can invite speakers and participate in an open interchange of ideas.

This would be more fitting for an educational institution than the situation we have now, where any off-campus troll can pop up, perform a burlesque on campus, and leave the students divided and angry and the college open to ridicule.

If people really want to share their ideas with the community of scholars on college campuses they should be willing to have a dialogue with those who hold differing views. After all, the thoughtful examination of ideas is supposed to be what universities are all about.

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