‘Hijacking’ Free Speech

Author argues in new book that conservatives have abused the concept of free expression on college campuses.

August 22, 2019
 

College campuses have grappled with extraordinary free speech challenges in the last several years. Students have shouted down speakers whose views they disagree with or find offensive, and outsiders have demanded the students be punished. White supremacists have increased their presence on campuses both to speak and to spread their literature. P. E. Moskowitz, formerly a staff writer with Al Jazeera America, has documented many of those cases in their new book, The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amendment, Fascism and the Future of Dissent (Hachette Book Group). Moskowitz discusses how they believe conservatives have abused the concept of free speech and walks through the forces behind the 2017 riots in Charlottesville, Va., and elsewhere.

Moskowitz answered some questions about their book via email.

Q: What do you anticipate the biggest battles related to free speech will be on college campuses?

A: I think, thankfully, we've kind of seen beyond the ruse of free speech fights on college campuses and begun to recognize there are deeper issues at play. For years, there were dozens of op-eds, think pieces and some reported pieces framing college students as rabble-rousers who just wanted to shut people down. Now we're starting to see that these students aren't after a purified and politically correct campus, but one that is more challenging -- one that includes different points of view and is more welcoming to people of color and trans students. Does that mean the fights on campus are over? Absolutely not. If anything, we'll see more of these fights on college campuses as students take professors and administrators to task for teaching staid curricula that don't relate to their lived experiences. But I think that's a positive sign: Isn't it great that students are passionate about what they're learning, passionate enough to demand that it be changed to more accurately reflect the world we live in today? They're asking for more, not less.

But what I do [think] is mostly over is the era of conservative provocateurs claiming that their free speech has been violated because students simply don't want to hear them speak. Colleges, after all, are some of the most highly curated environments out there, and faculty, administrators and many others are realizing there's nothing wrong with limiting some speech. After all, that's their literal jobs -- to create syllabi, classroom discussions, etc. that teach students some things, but not everything. Is not including a book on a syllabus a violation of free speech? Of course not. Why is the logic of not inviting racist speakers to campus different?

Unfortunately I do think there will be more legal battles over this. You're seeing conservative legislators trying to block students from protesting on campus in several states, something that's sure to only anger students further.

Q: When it comes to incidents related to free speech, i.e. controversial speakers, shout-downs, protests and more, what do you think administrators get wrong in their response?

A: I think administrators have kind of had the wool pulled over their eyes when it comes to free speech and inviting controversial speakers. They think they have some duty to present conflictual viewpoints even if those viewpoints are racist, anti-intellectual and simply not factual. As one Middlebury student pointed out to me, the administrators don't invite people who [don't] want to present evolution or global warming as a truth, because that would conflict with the college's academic values. Why is inviting someone who believes in an outdated concept such as race science, like Charles Murray, held to a less stringent standard?

The job of colleges and universities has always been to limit some forms of information while promoting others. A conservative Christian university would likely not invite someone to talk about the benefits of communism and atheism, and we do not expect them to. You don't go to history class to learn to bake a cake. Classrooms are generally led by professors, and students are not allowed to speak out of turn. In other words, colleges have always been some of the most limited speaking environments in the world, so why is inviting or not inviting a conservative provocateur different? I think administrators are simply scared of angering some very powerful forces. That's especially true of public universities, where their budgets might be cut if they piss off the wrong legislators.

Q: You argue in the book that you believe conservatives have hijacked the concept of free speech for their own purposes. Do you think conservatives truly believe in the notion of free speech at all, and if not, why?

A: I think many conservatives believe in free speech but don't really question what it means. We've been taught a very specific definition of free speech that promotes certain speech while quashing other speech. If I voice my opinion in my house, that's free speech; if I voice it, uninvited, at my neighbor's house, that's a home invasion and I could be legally shot in many states! If you enter a Walmart, you're not allowed to photograph anything. If you yell in a government building about a grievance, you can be arrested for protesting.

This is where we get into the conservatives that I believe see free speech as nothing more than a tool to push their agenda. In the 1980s, the Koch brothers and their policy advisers got together and put together a plan to infiltrate college campuses with free-market ideology. They knew that people wouldn't simply accept lower tax rates and deregulation of the economy, so they purposefully invested in what they called "raw materials" -- professorships, literature and student groups -- that would push for conservative beliefs under the guise of free speech.

Q: White nationalist speakers such as Richard Spencer and others have largely ceased college tours. Do you anticipate a time where they, or others like them, will resume this speaking circuit?

A: Not really. Maybe in 10 or 20 years, once we've all forgotten how much of a failure these conservative speakers were. They essentially got laughed out of public discourse. College students and other activists have been remarkably successful at getting their point across and de-emphasizing the importance of these provocateurs. Evergreen College, for example, is seen as a controversial example of protest, and in many cases even a failure, because of the protests there in recent years over an overly white faculty and curriculum that didn't center anyone but white people. But in my mind, it's actually a success story: students got much of what they wanted, and the school is now more committed to diversity in hiring and teaching. Because of those successes, right-wingers have had to take a step back and restrategize. That doesn't mean they're not still active on college campuses. But I suspect they'll develop a different tactic soon, since the provocateur model has kind of failed.

Q: Some students want "hate speech" to be punishable on public college campuses. Do you believe there is the will among administrators to do this, or to change over all what is acceptable at these institutions, despite First Amendment concerns?

A: Again, this goes back to colleges being some of the most highly curated environments out there. Is denying someone admission to a college a threat to that person's free speech? Is failing someone in a class a threat to their free speech? Is a student not being able to disrupt a class whenever they want a threat to free speech? We take these limits as a given, and even a positive in colleges, yet when it comes to students requesting or demanding that colleges not allow professors or students to say racist, transphobic and other offensive language without punishment, that becomes a step too far for administrators. So I would question whether they're really afraid of limiting speech (which, as I said, they do all the time), or whether they're afraid of confronting just how common and ingrained transphobia, racism and other forms of oppression are on their campuses.

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