‘Liberal’ Campuses, Conservative Media, and the First Amendment

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Last summer, a Gallup poll found that 67 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning individuals have only “some” or “very little” confidence in colleges and universities. Their chief complaint: Institutions of higher education are “too liberal and political” and “don’t allow students to think for themselves and are pushing their own agenda.” It’s an article of faith among many conservatives that most of the agents of higher education—administrators, faculty, and students—are politically correct automatons and that campus conservatives are besieged truth tellers. Case after case after case of liberal intolerance is presented as evidence of entrenched anti-intellectual, anti-conservative dogma.

If campuses are so liberal, why would conservative media outlets need to embellish news reports and propagate falsehoods about how students at one college reacted to an appearance by a conservative thinker? Yet, that’s precisely what National Review and others did when they weighed in on talks given by a conservative firebrand at Hamilton College, a small liberal arts school in the town of Clinton in upstate New York.

Egged on by right-wing ideologues in the news media, the supposed controversy stems from on-campus appearance this past October by Paul Gottfried, a former Elizabethtown College professor. Gottfried’s visit was organized by the Alexander Hamilton Institute (AHI), a largely conservative, off-campus, think-tank located based in Clinton, which is not affiliated with the college. The AHI’s student-run offshoot announced and facilitated Gottfried’s visit. The organization invited Gottfried to speak to a history class on fascism and a government class on conservatism in the United States.

Gottfried founded the H.L. Mencken Club, an “organization for independent-minded intellectuals and academics of the Right.” In 2013, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mark Potok described them as “a kinder, gentler Klan.” The SPLC has designated them as a hate group.

If cultivating like-minded bigots wasn’t enough, Gottfried argued in a 2008 article that “one would have to be blind or struck insane by the gods not to notice that some races and ethnic groups have a greater capacity to produce culture, science, and civility than do others. Moreover, blacks almost always are found at the bottom of this list.” He added, “Genetics does matter, and I suspect that at some future time if we do emerge from the government- and media-created miasma of PC, we may be willing to look honestly at all of the reasons that some groups behave less productively and less peacefully than others.”

Those are repulsive, backward worldviews for many Americans, but under the First Amendment, he has the right to express such views—and, students and faculty who reject Gottfried’s musings have the right to express their displeasure with his campus appearance as long as they do not interfere with his free speech rights.

His Hamilton visit played out along those lines. Gottfried spoke, and Hamilton students protested his speech without affecting his constitutional rights in anyway. The matter should have ended there. Instead, after the Gottfried visit, conservative observers and publications misrepresented and exaggerated the facts in a way that falsely portrays Hamilton and higher education at large as intolerant.

An AHI article asserted that “disruptive protests greeted Gottfried” at Hamilton, with the word “disruption” in the headline signaled that rabid protestors showed up to make trouble. The same article twice refers to Gottfried running a “gauntlet” of protestors en route to his speaking engagements.

Last month, Gottfried himself, in a piece titled “Sorry, Students, but I Have Never Espoused Racism or White Supremacy,” suggests that he was greeted with “shouts and taunts.” These assertions are false. Francis Coots, Hamilton’s director of campus safety who is a former New York State Police commander, described the atmosphere on campus differently: “In the time that I was in the area of the protestors, I did not hear any words exchanged between the students and anyone else. They held signs and handed out a sheet with specific items about Mr. Gottfried,” he told me recently. “The students were polite and did not interfere in any way.”

Gottfried also said that Hamilton College fired a professor affiliated with the conservative campus group that invited him. That assertion is also false. A Hamilton College spokesperson, when asked about this change, told me: “Paul Gottfried’s article contains a number of misrepresentations and distortions. The most egregious is the claim that a faculty member ‘lost his post as a lecturer at the college’—apparently a case of guilt by association. The person in question was an adjunct hired to teach a single course in the fall semester.”

“Mr. Gottfried's views on race are a matter of public record,” the spokesperson added.

National Review contributor George Leef has also claimed that “a gauntlet of students accosted him before he had said a single word, tossing around epithets and accusations. "Never mind," he continued, "that Gottfried had not in fact said anything that a reasonable person would construe as racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, or bigotry.” If peaceful, silent protests merit the use of the word “accosted,” to describe what happened to Gottfried, it is not only liberals who can be disparaged as snowflakes.  

In January, Adam Kissel, Deputy Assistant for Higher Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education, tweeted out Leef’s article to his 3,000 followers. Rather than fact-check, Kissel made sure to editorialize, adding to the title so that his tweet reads: “Structural Intolerance at Hamilton College: No Ground for Complaint, Leftist Smear Speaker and President Plays Along.”

In his 1959 book Up From Liberalism, William F. Buckley said “Though liberals do a great deal of talking about hearing other points of view, it sometimes shocks them to learn that there are other points of view.” In this case, however, conservatives were the people who were shocked, offended, and downright distraught that Gottfried’s bigoted views—that blacks are genetically inferior to whites—would be met with peaceful protests on a college campus.

It is an unfortunate reflection on the sad state and degeneration of contemporary conservatism that National Review, the publication Buckley founded, would turn his famous formulation on its head and publish a politically-motivated, self-serving account of the Hamilton event based on “alternative facts.”

There’s a cottage industry of scolds taking college students to task for their imperfect interpretations of the First Amendment and general inability to have civil conversations. Liberals do not need a constitutional refresher. To any politically-attuned observer, it is not difficult to parse what’s going on here: Commentators, news outlets, and even government officials want to drum up a Charles Murray or Milo Yiannopoulos scenario—to illustrate that today’s college students are anti-intellectual and brainwashed liberal snowflakes.

In the right’s continuing search for liberal intolerance, conservatives should just look elsewhere.  

Hamilton is not the hotbed of liberal hysteria  that Gottfried, Kissel, the National Review and the AHI desperately want it to be. To disparage Hamilton College and institutions of higher education in general, these people misrepresented events, published outright lies, and spread fake news like birdseed. In their self-congratulatory pursuit of political talking points, these conservative intellectuals, academics, publications, and government figures, have allowed ideology to cloud their vision and blind them to the facts. Such behavior is a lamentable departure from William Buckley’s more dignified contributions to public debate. 

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