The good news: Both the left and the right have reached consensus that free speech is important.
The bad news: “Free speech” has apparently been redefined to mean “speech with which I agree.”
Over the past few years, there have been many high-profile cases of left-wing college students or their cowed administrators chilling the public discourse (by disinviting speakers, censoring artwork, disciplining transgressors of arbitrarily imposed cultural appropriation rules, threatening to defund school newspapers, etc.). Such actions have often been accompanied by dutiful statements about the campus’s commitment to free and open dialogue. Silencing some people’s speech was supposedly necessary to make other speakers feel “safe.” Now, the right has (re)discovered that two can play at this game.
In a disturbing series of events, conservative organizations have been claiming the mantle of free speech in service of suppressing campus speech they dislike, too.
The most recent case involves professor Olga Perez Stable Cox at Orange Coast College in California. An anonymous student in her human sexuality class secretly recorded Cox discussing her political views. She referred to Donald Trump as a “white supremacist,” his running mate Mike Pence “as one of the most anti-gay humans in this country” and their election as an “act of terrorism.”
Her words were clearly liberal – and hyperbolic, although perhaps not as hyperbolic as they initially seemed: In the days since her “act of terrorism” talk ripped across the internet, she has received terroristic death threats herself and fled the state.
Meanwhile, the Orange Coast College Republicans – the group that disseminated the gotcha video – is campaigning for her firing. The group’s president said that expunging commentary such as hers from campus is necessary to ensure the college’s commitment to “diversity, equity and inclusivity.”
If this language sounds familiar, it’s because it’s eerily similar to the pseudo-free-speech rhetoric often used by the left to stamp out words and ideas it dislikes, too.
Unsurprisingly, conservative pundits convinced that U.S. colleges are leftist indoctrination camps have taken up the Republican students’ cause. Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly referred to the professor’s words as an “assault” on her students – conflating words with physical violence in the same way liberals so often do.
“Now we have the totalitarian left in America, and if you don’t see it their way, you’re attacked and demonized,” he said, after attacking and demonizing this professor.
O’Reilly called on governors and legislators to monitor college classrooms more directly to prevent professors from “harming students with insane ideology.”
This sounds an awful lot like an attempt to coerce educators into using only politician- approved – dare I say “politically correct”? – language.
In a similar vein, the conservative group Turning Point USA recently published a “Professor Watchlist,” a catalog of what it thinks are dangerous, “anti-American” professors who deserve public shaming for allegedly trying to “advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” (Among those “radical” items: advocating gun control, calling Ted Cruz’s infamous “New York values” statement anti-Semitic.) The watchlist homepage of course includes a disclaimer that Turning Point will “continue to fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish.”
It’s tempting to attribute this right-wing weaponization of “free speech” rhetoric to cynicism. More likely it’s cognitive dissonance.
When I speak to conservative groups that claim a commitment to free speech, they often seem genuinely surprised by data showing that campus illiberalism is not exclusively espoused by liberals.
They’re apparently unaware that conservative students are also requesting “trigger warnings” (typically about nudity, sex and gay themes), according to a faculty survey released by the National Coalition Against Censorship. They also don’t seem to know that Republican undergrads are about as likely as their Democratic classmates to say that colleges should be able to restrict campus speech that expresses “political views that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups,” according to a Knight Foundation survey.
Fighting perceived ideological repression with ideological repression is nothing new, of course. Earlier rounds of the campus culture wars had their own “most dangerous professors” lists. In fact, purges of professors suspected of endangering or brainwashing students date not only to McCarthyism, but also at least to World War I.
Likewise we’ve seen earlier right-wing attempts to use state power to punish colleges for (supposed) liberal indoctrination of students.
Don’t get me wrong. Campuses probably need more intellectual diversity (especially from conservative thinkers) and definitely more public debate. But the principled way to achieve those ends is to actually have the debate. Not to shut it down.
Catherine Rampell is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.