Guns, hostile lawmakers, and professional bigots are more dangerous to academic freedom than left-wing activists are.
By David M. Perry
(Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
A week ago, Milo Yiannopoulos went to the University of Washington. Protesters and supporters assembled, and one of Yiannopoulos’ fans shot a protester in the stomach. In the aftermath, the school’s College Republicans issued a warning that future protesters at right-wing events might be punished with similar violence. “If you keep prodding the right,” they wrote, “you may be unpleasantly surprised what the outcome may be.” The College Republicans did not comment on the shooting. The victim, meanwhile, has asked for “dialogue and restorative justice” rather than pressing criminal charges. This incident — a right-winger shooting a left-wing protester, a threat of violence from a GOP-affiliated group, and a plea for more speech from the left-wing victim — got perhaps one-10th of the professional and social mediacoverage as a 2015 complaint from Oberlin College students about cultural appropriation (using the wrong type of bread for Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches) in the cafeteria. Somehow, overzealous Oberliners—students at one of the least typical colleges in America—have become the straw men for what people like to think is wrong with American higher education.
The right-wing attack on campus speech doesn’t just manifest in violence, of course. Over the past few years, GOP lawmakers and affiliated groups have increasingly sought to use the double power of coercive legislation and the threat of withholding federal funds to demand more right-wing ideology on campus. Although studies show that there are plenty of conservative professors and that they are are mostly pretty happy in the academy, many Republicans believe that colleges are simply too liberal and want to mandate certain kinds of content—and hiring practices (see below for examples).They couch this in the language of academic freedom, but using law and money to force speech is its antithesis.
Speech codes, which have been proposed, should be resisted. But I do think that fascists shooting people on campus in the stomach for dissenting views might be worth a little more attention.
Meanwhile, the most frustrating thing has not been these would-be theocrats trying to replace a perceived liberal bubble with a conservative one—it’s been the centrist, usually white and male media figures whose “PC run amok” diatribes lend cover to hollow conservative arguments. Purported concern about free speech on campus almost always starts from the premise that the greatest threat to liberty comes from students of marginalized backgrounds who wish to change the way we talk about inequality and identity. Witness this cover story in The Atlantic, an Oberlin-based New Yorker feature, lots of top-five newspapercoverage about Oberlin and Yale University, and obsessive coverage from libertarian media and groups like FIRE. Indeed, when it comes to complaints about cafeterias, I might roll my eyes, even as I know that Oberlin is nothing like most other universities. Speech codes, which have been proposed, should be resisted. But I do think that fascists shooting people on campus in the stomach for dissenting views might be worth a little more attention.
And then there are the legislative and regulatory efforts. Back when Ben Carson was being considered for secretary of education, rather than for housing and urban development, we learned that his one idea was to “monitor our institutions of higher education for extreme political bias and deny federal funding if it exists.” The American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative law-writing group funded by the Koch brothers, has been meeting with state legislators and handing out bills that would demand an annual count of events, checking to see how many featured conservatives, and then threaten to pull funding if they didn’t identify a sufficient number. In Wisconsin, after years of GOP attacks on tenure, legislators have been demanding the cancellation of a class on “Whiteness,” singled out a specific essay on homosexuality for removal from the curriculum, and threatened funding if their orders aren’t followed.
Bearing in mind these two trends — the media focuses on left-wing threats against speech while the right-wing threatens violence and coercive legislative action — let’s turn to the news of the day. I’ve intentionally buried the lede. As you likely know, a protest at the University of California–Berkeley resulted in the cancellation of Yiannopoulos’ latest speech. Social media is buzzing with right-wing and centrist condemnation of the protesters; none of these critics are offering concrete suggestions for what protesters should have done instead. Left alone, Yiannopoulos uses his speeches to target vulnerable people, as he did to a transgender student at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, who subsequently had to withdraw from school. Confronted peacefully, as in Washington, his backers escalated the violence, shooting someone. Confronted forcefully — and let’s be clear that the Berkeley protesters were forceful, though, of course, loud public protest is also a form of free speech — Yiannopoulos leverages the anger he’s caused in his foes to further his minions’ sense of permanent victimization.
Yiannopoulos has set a neat trap. I don’t pretend to know the answer. I want to be clear that the way forward is not simple. But given that President Donald Trump tweeted a threat to withhold funding if Berkeley doesn’t let people like Yiannopoulos speak (note that administrators did allow him to speak, but canceled for safety reasons — not content reasons), surely we have to consider the Berkeley incident in light of the pervasive attacks on academic freedom from the right, as well as from PC-run-amok.
This story isn’t going away. Yiannopoulos is going to keep drawing crowds into his theater and shouting “fire.” Conservative lawmakers will keep threatening to pull funding from universities. Right-wing agitators will keep bringing guns to protests. And the “liberal media” has to start treating these threats as comparably serious to Oberlin students wanting the correct bread for their Banh Mi sandwiches.