The Free Speech Debate Isn’t A University Issue. It’s An American One.

Abbie Winters
Pathologizing political correctness isn’t just for conservatives anymore. The debate over free speech on college campuses has reached a fever pitch in the media, spreading beyond right-wing flamethrowers like Milo Yiannopoulos to left-wing personalities like Bill Maher. You can find pundits of all political persuasions writing concerned op-eds about this. The implication from both sides is that campuses are becoming sacred spaces of such severe liberal orthodoxy that it’s now creating a hostile environment for people expressing themselves freely, especially if they’re conservative.
But the reality is these instances don’t happen nearly as much as media coverage might have you believe. They certainly don’t characterize the everyday state of affairs on college campuses between students and faculty. And worse, they take away attention from other (possibly more consequential) interferences in the marketplace of ideas.
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Case in point: Last week new documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by a student activist group revealed that the Charles Koch Foundation, one of many organizations founded by the oil-rich conservative Koch family, had made a secret agreement with George Mason University to influence the hiring and firing of professors. In exchange, the foundation gifted millions of dollars in university donations between 2003 and 2011. University president Angel Cabrera freely admitted that the agreements pointed to a troubling violation of academic independence.
But this did not inspire any apprehension or criticism among emerging free speech warriors. Bari Weiss was silent about it. Yiannopoulos was, too. And even Bill Maher, who notoriously rips on the Koch Brothers in every other way, you’d think would be horrified by this. But nope. Not even a blip.
Worse, this isn’t the first time the Koch Foundation has been caught trying to buy political influence on college campuses: In 2008, almost identical revelations were made about the foundation and Florida State University.
Why is it, then, that when we talk about issues of free speech on college campuses, it always seems to be an issue of sensitive liberal youth? This is not to say that concern over student activists is totally unwarranted. No-platforming, or denying public figures speaking engagements or writing publication, is particularly problematic because it is quite literally a silencing tactic.

Why is it that when we talk about issues of free speech on college campuses, it always seems to be an issue of sensitive liberal youth?

But when you put it into context, you have to ask: Which is more dangerous, a minority of maniacal students who act inappropriately in public spaces or a billionaire family with longstanding political connections that covertly makes deals to shape curriculum in some of the country’s largest public universities?
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While prominent media personalities with major platforms decry safe spaces, trigger warnings, and social justice warriors, conservative efforts to influence academic thought rarely enter the public flurry of op-eds on free speech. And as the revelations about the Koch Foundation clearly show, the conservative resources being poured into political initiatives on campus are not insignificant.
If you have doubts about the scope of each problem, consider this: a non-partisan study found that students today are more tolerant of offensive speech than older generations and support for free speech on college campuses is on the rise. Yet time and time again, the free speech issue is framed as an insidious condition of Gen Z student snowflakes, and seemingly, college campuses are their breeding grounds.
Young people have always leaned liberal and been harbingers of cultural change – and they’ve always been met with criticism from older generations every step of the way. Guess which side usually ends up on the right side of history. Hint: it’s not the ones reminiscing about “the good old days.”
Claudia Carr is a professor of environmental policy at University of California, Berkeley who has been teaching there for over 30 years. She explained how events like Milo Yiannopoulos' September 2017 speaking engagement, which gained global media attention, have mischaracterized the debate on campus.
"Of course there are some students in favor of telling people to shut up, but there are many, many more who are deliberating over how you distinguish between First Amendment free speech on the one hand and hate speech on the other, which incites violence," she said. “Certainly there's no preponderance of view amongst undergraduate students that I know of. It's an active debate. And I think that's really healthy."
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Samara Klar, an professor of political science at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy, brings up another point to consider.
“Among my ranks of junior professors, [academia] is definitely changing,” she said in a phone interview with Refinery29. “I think there is a really big shift in both in how people are thinking in the academy and also by the people that are being represented.”
A 2016 study by the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America found that underrepresented minorities in faculty positions grew by 8.6% since 1993 and women in faculty positions grew by a whopping 38.6% in that same time period. And while the majority of these gains have been off the tenured track, leadership in academia has evolved beyond an enclave of white men as well.
Maybe it’s not political correctness that’s infecting our higher education institutions, but the growing pains of an increasingly inclusive study body and faculty roster. With more women and people of color at the helm at elite institutions, there will inevitably be more attention given to issues of privilege, discrimination, and representation in the classroom.
This is not to say that women and people of color are even close to achieving equal representation in academia, but it is telling that the majority of institutions with “free speech crises” are private, elite institutions designed with a narrow demographic in mind.
“I think having such diversity on our campus really does encourage people to share their opinions,” Klar said.“I have students who openly identify as Republicans as Democrats. And to be honest, I have never seen anything that gives me concern.”
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She explained that openly supporting Donald Trump does carry a stigma on campus, but that isn’t exclusive to college campuses. “Young students feel that just as much as adults in urban settings.” To that end, what’s happening on college campuses today is less a reflection of an unprecedented generational shift and more to do with a new political climate in this country overall.
The fact of the matter is Donald Trump’s presidency is extraordinary— and it is provoking an extraordinary response to match. If you have always had the privilege to say whatever you want without pushback, the changing tide of sociocultural repercussions may feel like a threat to your rights. It’s not. It is evidence that a newly energized demographic is fighting for their right to speak back to you. That’s not a university issue — it’s an American one.
But as we work through the growing pains of this new political era, let’s not lose sight of the real threat to free speech and higher education: politically-motivated men like the Koch brothers who have the power, money, and resources to tip the scales in a downright un-American fashion.
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