Column: The manufactured free speech crisis

John Patrick Leary

The Michigan Legislature, like the U.S. Senate, is a safe space for right-wing groupthink. That’s the conclusion I’ve drawn from a recent flurry of activity on the manufactured crisis of “campus free speech” in Lansing and Washington, D.C. A pair of bills recently introduced by Sen. Patrick Colbeck would direct state universities to “ensure the fullest degree of intellectual freedom and free expression,” and would then require them to suspend or expel student protesters who “infringe” upon another person’s free speech rights. Colbeck’s bill is similar to proposed legislation in Wisconsin, Colorado, and North Carolina. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Sen. Chuck Grassley recently concluded a Judiciary Committee hearing entitled “Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses.”

What is driving this concern with college activism? Conservatives have been in an uproar since a series of raucous protests against conservative speakers at campuses like the University of California, Berkeley, and Middlebury College in Vermont last year. In February, Milo Yiannopoulos, the disgraced former Breitbart.com editor, canceled a talk at Berkeley in the face of raucous demonstrations. The following month at Middlebury, student protesters interrupted a lecture by Charles Murray, an American Enterprise Institute Fellow and co-author of The Bell Curve, the book that argued that racial inequality is shaped by nonwhite people’s genetic makeup.

Grassley and Colbeck choose to read disruptive demonstrations like these as evidence of a pervasive crisis of “free speech” on campus. Grassley claimed that American colleges are becoming places of anti-Constitution “indoctrination” and “censorship.” His primary example of this dreadful development? Seventy percent of students today “believe it is desirable to restrict the use of slurs and other language intentionally offensive to certain groups,” he said. The First Amendment, to Grassley, protects Americans’ God-given right to be cruel in public. Colbeck echoes this assessment.

The Bill of Rights should be next on Colbeck’s summer reading list. One can argue about tactics, but Berkeley and Middlebury students had every right to loudly, disruptively, even rudely protest Yiannopoulos and Murray. The First Amendment makes no demands on politeness. And Yiannopoulos and Murray, in turn, had every right to give their lectures without state repression. But contrary to popular belief in the GOP, the First Amendment does not guarantee anyone, right or left, a platform or a polite audience.

What’s more, Colbeck seems not to recognize that the First Amendment applies to speakers he doesn’t like — leftist protesters, in this case — as well as those he does. Senate Bill 349 stipulates that “protests and demonstrations that infringe upon the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity are not permitted.” Violations of this vaguely-worded rule — what does “infringe” mean? — would result in either suspensions or expulsions for student demonstrators speaking out on the issues that matter to them. Under the law, student activists would have recourse to a disciplinary hearing and a lawyer — if they have enough pizza money laying around to hire one, that is. Colbeck may have read 1984, but he has learned all the wrong lessons it. It is Orwellian in the extreme to propose a free-speech tribunal, presided over by college authorities, as a remedy for the suppression of free speech.

The stated reasons for the GOP’s interest in regulating college campus activism don’t stand up to scrutiny. What, then, are their unstated reasons?

Politics. Student activists, the clear targets of the bill, are on the left. Senate Bill 350 stipulates that universities must not shield students from protected speech, “if they find the ideas and opinions expressed unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” I agree — as does every faculty member I know. (Unlike Sen. Grassley, however, I don’t consider racial slurs to be “ideas.”) But if Colbeck were serious about nurturing unpopular or controversial opinions in college, then he would be alarmed at the rise of neo-McCarthyist groups like Turning Point USA, which operates a “Professor Watchlist” that claims to “expose and document” leftist professors across the country. He would be disappointed that George Cicciarello-Maher, a Drexel University political scientist on this list, faces possible dismissal over a series of tweets that earned the ire of an right-wing outrage machine on social media.

But you will not hear a word about them, or many others like them, from Colbeck or Grassley. Conservatives, no longer content to undermine public colleges by starving them of funding, now seem to prefer that the government regulate their intellectual lives more directly — all in the name of “free speech,” of course. And in the name of freedom of speech and thought, we shouldn’t let them.

John Patrick Leary is an assistant professor of English at Wayne State University.