Coultergate and the Truth About Campus Speech

David Faris | (Informed Comment) | – –

The cancellation of human outrage machine Ann Coulter’s speech at the University of California-Berkeley has generated yet another round of pearl-clutching and hand-wringing about safe spaces and campus free speech. Also: it has generated lawsuits. And once again, we’re having the wrong argument. The Coulter imbroglio, like those surrounding Milo Yiannapoulos, David Horowitz and countless other right-wing fraudsters, obscures the truth about who can say what on college campuses today.

Most speech restrictions at colleges and universities are directed not at far-right bomb-throwers like Coulter but rather at professors, particularly at public universities. There, professors are considered public employees who are forbidden from engaging in any speech that explicitly favors one party over the other in the classroom. While these laws are designed to prevent professors from standing in front of their classes and literally endorsing a candidate, in practice they have a chilling effect on the ability of politically-engaged scholars to pursue their work to its logical conclusions. The fear of dismissal if professors don’t explicitly distance whatever they’re saying from their employer is why Ulrich Baer had to update his recent New York Times piece on campus speech to make sure everyone understood that NYU didn’t endorse it. New York University is a private institution; the op-ed contained no endorsement of candidates in any ongoing election. Why did Baer have to issue that disclaimer, exactly?

Since 9/11, cases of professors being harmed professionally by their political views are legion. An outspoken critic of Israel, Norman Finklestein, was denied tenure at DePaul University in 2007 despite being well published in his field. In 2014, the University of Illinois revoked a job offer to American Indian Studies Professor Steven Salaita after he posted sharp criticism of Israeli behavior during that year’s attack on Gaza. The university eventually paid Salaita nearly a million dollars in damages. UC Berkeley itself tried to stop a student-led course on Palestine that went through all the usual permitting, allegedly under pressure from Israel. And these are only the high-profile cases.

The purpose of bringing up this history is to point out that universities often have one free speech standard for their own employees, and another for invited speakers, though it should be acknowledged that most such invitations are extended, not by university departments but by campus groups, some of them with a tenuous relationship to the university proper. In any case, at Berkeley, Ann Coulter actually has more free speech rights than a tenured professor. To see how this is true, play a little game with me. Imagine if a tenured professor at Radical University were to Tweet something like, “Anyone who serves in the U.S. military is mentally ill,” or “Police officers should be considered legitimate targets of violence” or “White children in America are agents of demographic genocide against people of color.”

Then think about some of the things written and said by people like Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer or Ann Coulter, all provocateurs somehow deemed worthy of invitation to share their timeless insights into the human condition with university audiences. Coulter on murdering abortion providers: “I am personally opposed to shooting abortionists, but I don’t want to impose my moral values on others.” Spencer on how American minorities should go back to their countries of ethnic origin: “It’s like presenting to an African that this hasn’t worked out.” Yiannopoulos on trans people: “They are deeply mentally damaged, and they are failed by a liberal establishment obsessed with making them feel good about themselves.” At most universities, the bare minimum consequence for saying any of these things out loud to a roomful of alumni would be getting called into an emergency meeting with the dean or the provost and dressed down.

Yet these shit-stirrers and self-aggrandizers run around the country trying to book college gigs precisely so that they can cause controversy when the inevitable protests break out. They suffer no meaningful consequences if a talk is cancelled here and there and their First Amendment rights remain very much intact. (The First Amendment protects people from the US government banning their speech, which hasn’t happened). Moreover, few of them have ever published anything worthy of an invitation to address a community of scholars, unless you think In Trump We Trust is a work of meaningful intellectual inquiry. But somehow, when faced with such provocations, the protestors are told that by exercising their own speech rights to register their disapproval of a woman who believes that the leaders of Muslim countries should be murdered and their citizens converted to Christianity, they are creating a national moral panic and calling the cops in to break up the free speech kegger.

Professors aren’t invited to that party anyway. Many academics practice a form of self-censorship that would be painfully familiar to journalists in authoritarian regimes – we develop ‘red lines’ that are formally or informally communicated to us by the administration and then don’t cross them. Some of this is, of course, a process of sensibly adjusting to unfortunate political realities and not jeopardizing the jobs and livelihoods of your colleagues. But let’s please not pretend that I can get on Twitter tonight and say whatever I damn well please even if that’s what the law says.

It’s not a coincidence that nearly every single campus speech controversy from the last few years happened on a handful of elite campuses where aspiring Reince Preibus clones can spitball names of outrageous speakers at College Republican headquarters to conjure maximum outrage and attention. If the purpose was intellectual exchange, they’d invite Ross Douthat, not David Horowitz. But of course, the purpose is not intellectual exchange.

The really important thing to understand about academic freedom is that it’s designed to protect members of university communities from retaliation based on their scholarship or work as public intellectuals. It was most definitely not meant to ensure that smarmy campus conservatives can invite coked-up Nazis to tell us that trans folks are mentally ill or that it was A-OK for FDR to round up innocent Japanese-Americans and imprison them for four years. Universities are not our national laboratories for experimenting on the line between inquiry and incitement. For professors and staff, they are our workplaces, and for students their homes. No one – not professors, not students, and certainly not Richard Goddamned Spencer – has the kind of free speech rights on campus that Ann Coulter’s defenders imagine that they do. Most of the people telling you otherwise haven’t set foot on a university campus in decades and have absolutely no clue what actually happens on one. If they are interested in doing so without being greeted by protestors, they might try producing a single thought worthy of an intellectual audience. If they go around merely insulting people to their faces in order to provoke disorder for headlines and lucrative book deals–and therefore create such conditions of insecurity that campus police beg off trying to handle it, then they are behaving more like a biker gang invading a small town than like public intellectuals.

Campus dissidents have, of course, also sometimes objected to visits by former policymakers like Dick Cheney, or prominent global figures like IMF Managing Director Christine LeGarde. Perhaps the hysteria surrounding these kinds of controversies could be reduced by agreeing that certain kinds of speakers – legitimate scholars, heads of state and accomplished policymakers – should be given the benefit of the doubt even if some groups on campus object to their past actions or rhetoric. But doing so would require conservatives to cease their harassment of critics of Israel and efforts to penalize the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement. And it would require that speakers adhere to the same standards of discourse observed by the students, faculty and staff who must continue their work long after the latest provocateur has moved onto the next engagement. That standard is not “anything goes” and the sooner the broader public realizes that, the sooner we can lower the temperature on these kinds of controversies.

David Faris is chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago. His books Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt (2013) (Here) and Social Media in Iran: Politics and Society After 2009 (Here) (with Babak Rahimi) focus on the use of digital media by social movements.​

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

The Young Turks: “How Ann Coulter Beat Berkeley”

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12 Responses

  1. Many good points in here. I wonder, though, about the wisdom of holding invited speakers to the same standards as professors. The former are invited to campus by special-interest clubs (e.g., the BCR), and presumably paid a stipend out of a dues-based fund unique to each club. The latter are salaried employees, paid presumably from a budget drawn from the tuition paid by all students. If I’m a student at University X, and I learn that well-known provocateur Dick Spencer is speaking Friday night at the College Republicans’ meeting room at the student center, I can say, “Boy, what a waster of their money”, avoid his inevitable racist diatribe, and instead watch a screening of “The War Room” over at the College Democrats’ meeting room. Dickie ends his speech, packs his things, and leaves campus, hopefully never to be heard from again.

    If, however, Professor Dick Spencer of the Political Science Department, whose salary I am, in part, paying, takes to Twitter Friday night to unleash a racist diatribe, I now have to think, “Wait a second. I’m paying this idiot’s salary? And now the whole Twitterverse thinks that he somehow represents my University, of which I’d like to feel some pride in attending?”

    In this scenario, isn’t the fact that the invited-speaker version of Spencer will turn tail and leave after his speech, whereas the tenured-professor version of Spencer will remain a presence on campus indefinitely, precisely the reason to NOT hold invited speakers to the same standards as professors?

    Not that a racist diatribe on Twitter is remotely close to criticizing West Bank settlements (and no professor should be censured by a university administration for making a cogent and reasoned critique), but today’s Coulter or Spencer could be tomorrow’s Carlin or Pryor (meaning an offensive-to-some speaker a select group on campus wants to pay and hear, even if no one else wants to). How far do you take restrictions on whom these self-funding clubs can invite?

    Now, having so wondered, I do think Robert Cohen’s piece on what Mario Savio might have thought about this controversy is well worth considering, particularly this line:

    “His answer, of course, was not to repress speech but to urge speakers and listeners to think critically about their discourse.”

    link to thenation.com

    • Hi, Kevin. Could I push back against the idea that taxpayers have jurisdiction over the speech of professors at public universities because they pay their salaries? I help pay the salary of Gov. Snyder, and my Texas counterparts pay the salary of Ted Cruz and yet we have no say in their public discourse, nor do I think we want any. Presumably taxpayers are paying for the students in their state to be educated, not to create a class of thousands of muzzled slaves.

      • You can, though I wasn’t really thinking about it from a taxpayer’s perspective. I was thinking about it from a tuition-paying-student’s perspective, so it would apply to public as well as private schools.

        And of course I never meant to suggest that university professors should be muzzled slaves (thus my comment about West Bank-settlement critiques and censuring professors). I just wonder about curtailing the ability of self-funded groups to invite whomever they wish to campus by holding the invitees to a scholarly standard. If the university itself invites a speaker (for example, at commencement), then yes, that standard is reasonable. But again, what if some random club not funded by student fees wants to invite some super-controversial comedian or pundit to its shindig that will happen to be held on campus. Are we not muzzling that club by saying, “Nope. He/She isn’t intellectual enough”?

        • Paying tuition should result in your hearing things you didn’t know, not in only hearing things you want to.

  2. If one were to remove the ad-hominem, red herring and strawman fallacies from this article there might not be “a single thought worthy of an intellectual audience” left to read.

    Here’s one particularly impressive example from the article that includes two ad-hominem attacks, two red herring fallacies, and Godwin’s Law in one sentence:

    “[Academic freedom] was most definitely not meant to ensure that smarmy campus conservatives can invite coked-up Nazis to tell us that trans folks are mentally ill or that it was A-OK for FDR to round up innocent Japanese-Americans and imprison them for four years.”

    The author should learn to make a succinct argument using sound logic rather than this appeal to emotion.

    It is difficult to understand the author’s thesis. Perhaps it is that: “That standard [of disourse] is not ‘anything goes’ and the sooner the broader public realizes that, the sooner we can lower the temperature on these kinds of controversies.”

    This is a strawman fallacy. Most conservatives aren’t arguing that “anything goes”. They’re arguing that conservative students should be able to bring conservative speakers to campus to discuss ideas without the fear of violence.

    If the author has proposed a sound refutation to that argument it isn’t apparent to this reader.

    • Godwin’s Law does not apply to actual Nazis. The argument was not that conservative students should not be able to invite conservative speakers – it was that people that work in these communities do not have the same speech rights as the invited speakers. You do not seem to have grappled with this point.

  3. In a 40 year career, teaching on several campuses, and teaching seminars designed to deal with current events, I have always enjoyed unlimited free speech rights,
    although my views on many subjects are clearly extreme. For instance,I favored legalization of cannabis long before it became a respectable position. I opposed our latest wars, which made for fun in a seminar that included four ROTC seniors bound for the battlefield.

  4. In a 40 year career, teaching on several campuses, and teaching seminars designed to deal with current events, I have always enjoyed unlimited free speech rights,
    although my views on many subjects are clearly extreme. For instance,I favored legalization of cannabis long before it became a respectable position. I opposed our latest wars, which made for fun in a seminar that included four ROTC seniors bound for the battlefield.

  5. Thanks for your excellent essay. Speakers who further the mission of the institution are welcome and those who would shout “fire” in a crowded theater are not.

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