The Conservatives Behind the Campus ‘Free Speech’ Crusade

Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

Greg Lukianoff speaking at the 2015 International Students for Liberty Conference at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Last month, I disclosed the conservative-movement funding, premises, strategy, and practices of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which purports to protect “free speech” on college campuses, but expends more energy blaming—and chilling—“politically correct” activists and administrators.

I also argued, in The New York Times, that “free speech is alive and well on campus,” and that demands for “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and speaker cancellations, while real and sometimes chilling, are far less prevalent and dangerous than FIRE insists. Such offenses often prompt not intimidation and silence but more speech, including criticism from liberals.

Now a thorough, mostly well-balanced report by the PEN (Poets, Essayists, and Novelists) American Center confirms that the conservative “free speech” crusade has gone too far. On October 20 at a Bard College conference, PEN executive director Suzanne Nossel will have an opportunity to question FIRE President Greg Lukianoff, the crusade’s most prominent national leader, about that overreaching.

There are several questions that I hope Nossel and another panelist, Angus Johnston, will ask Lukianoff. But first, some context. The Times’ Jennifer Schuessler reported last weekend that although “[t]he conventional wisdom surrounding American college life these days views campuses as hotbeds of intolerance for free speech,” the PEN report “questions that story line while warning of a different danger: a growing perception among young people that cries of ‘free speech’ are too often used as a cudgel against them.”

In other words, one thing threatening freedom of expression on campus is the “free speech” crusade itself. That’s not as Orwellian as it may sound. Not surprisingly, FIRE is trying to put the best face it can on the PEN report, which stops short of blaming the conservative group for wielding the cudgel, and even credits the organization with calling attention to threats against free speech. The report calls the organization “libertarian” but, confusingly, notes elsewhere in the text that the “FIRE is often regarded as libertarian or conservative and is viewed suspiciously by some liberal or progressive students and faculty.”

“Suspiciously?” As I demonstrate in “What the Campus ‘Free Speech’ Crusade Won’t Say,” FIRE’s funding, board members, and closest associations are heavily right wing.

Its major grants come from the ultra-conservative Earhart, John Templeton, and Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundations; the Scaife family foundations; the Koch-linked Donors Trust, and funders that sustain a myriad of conservative campus-targeting organizations that include FIRE, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the David Horowitz Freedom Center (whose “Academic Bill of Rights” would mandate more hiring of conservative faculty and would monitor professors’ syllabi for “balance”) and Campus Watch (which tracks and condemns liberal professors’ comments on the Middle East).

All of these organizations stoke public anger against “political correctness” as a threat to academic freedom and to the free-market economy, which they insist would enhance it. Never mind that, as FIRE keeps discovering—but never invites us to ponder—the college trustees and deans whom it condemns rightly enough for restricting speech are serving not politically correct pieties, but market pressures to satisfy student “customers” and avoid negative publicity, liability, and losses in “brand” or “market share.”

FIRE can’t acknowledge that the more market-driven a university, the more restrictive it—like any business corporation—is of individual rights in education. Lukianoff should be asked to acknowledge this at the Bard conference.

Lukianoff’s boards of directors and advisers include such prominent “free-market” conservatives as George Will and T. Kenneth Cribb, who was assistant for domestic affairs to President Ronald Reagan and a former president of the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which trains students to counter “liberal” threats to the “market economy.”

Roger Kimball, the thundering author of Tenured Radicals and “Taking Back the University—A Battle Plan” and a board member of the Sarah Scaife Foundation, one of FIRE’s big funders, also chairs the William F. Buckley Program at Yale, which invited Lukianoff to campus last fall. There he shot the infamous video of an overwrought black 20-year-old shrieking at a professor, and also “triggered” (if I may) an angry demonstration against the Buckley program itself.

Even Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, was published in 2014 by the right-wing Encounter Books, which also publishes such conservative mainstays as Kimball and William Kristol, and which has been funded with at least $6 million by the Bradley Foundation.

Lukianoff, a First Amendment lawyer who left the ACLU to head FIRE, claims that he’s a liberal Democrat, but his work depends on the conservative grant makers, board members, and associations mentioned above. What are his equivalent ties and obligations to progressives, whose freedoms he also claims to defend?   

The PEN report’s failure to note all this is perhaps its only major failing. And, tomorrow, PEN Executive Director Nossel will have an opportunity to make up for it by asking Lukianoff directly why FIRE highlights and occasionally even provokes “politically correct” threats to freedom of speech, as I watched it do at Yale, and why it seldom if ever mentions the many conservative “politically correct” pressures on students and teachers that I described in “Why Bashing ‘Politically Correct’ Campuses is Hurting Conservatism.”   

FIRE is justified, up to a point, in criticizing black protesters who shout down and intimidate classmates and professors by branding their colleges as racist, and in challenging feminist government and university bureaucrats who impose unfair standards and procedures when judging sexual-assault charges.

And the PEN report is justified in saying that “while free speech is alive and well on campus,”—a conclusion that echoes my own observations—it is “not free from threats and must be vigilantly guarded if its continued strength is to be assured.”

But FIRE itself poses one of those threats when it waves its “free speech” banner in virtual lockstep with a broader conservative class and culture war against the democratic rights it purports to protect.

Here things turn Orwellian, indeed: As I’ve mentioned, the same foundations that fund FIRE’s pretensions at championing campus free speech also fund David Horowitz’s speech-chilling “Academic Bill of Rights,” for which Lukianoff’s predecessor at FIRE, David French, testified favorably before the Pennsylvania legislature.

The same foundations also fund a campaign pretending to champion voting rights by passing voter ID laws that would actually disenfranchise voters, including many college students. (One of FIRE’s biggest funders, the Bradley Foundation, even paid for billboards in black neighborhoods that depicted a black man behind bars and the words, “Voting Fraud is Felony,” a not-so-veiled example of voter intimidation.)

The same foundations also support—and FIRE has applauded—the duplicitously-named Citizens United ruling that, in the name of expanding free speech, opens election campaigns, and therefore public deliberation about how to regulate corporations, to business-corporate fiduciaries of incorporeal whorls of shareholders, who cannot really deliberate about anything but the size of their dividends.

Labor unions, too, can now fund election campaigns, but once again, that’s little more than protective coloration for a ruling that lets wealthy corporations buy expensive megaphones to elect legislators who’ll impoverish and break more unions under so-called “right-to-work” laws.

Confronted with this picture, Lukianoff will undoubtedly accuse a questioner of assigning guilt by association, and cite FIRE’s occasional departures from the conservative line. But it’s awfully hard not to connect the dots between FIRE and the conservative funders and organizations engaged in a broad assault on any and all Americans who challenge their “free-market” doctrines.

Those doctrines have themselves become dangerous to democracy via casino-style financing (Donald Trump, anyone?), predatory lending, and ever-more intrusive, degrading consumer marketing. The PEN report misses this broader context, conscientious though it is in distinguishing real threats to campus free speech from hyped and imagined ones.

It’s also hard to accept at face value Lukianoff’s claim that FIRE takes on so many liberals only because most professors and students are liberals, and are therefore behind most campus constraints on free speech. In truth, as I have argued, conservative political correctness doesn’t need to shout as loudly as its “progressive” variant only because it’s already baked into every Economics 101 course and into the premises and protocols of career advancement that the larger society foists on undergraduates.

Pushers of these protocols insist that “free markets make free men,” as the old saying had it, and Lukianoff travels the country touting “the marketplace of ideas” on campus after campus. But the ebb and flow of ideas can’t be reduced to market exchanges, and has to transcend them.

Today, “free market” globalization is undermining the individual rights, civic virtues, and republican sovereignty that conservatives claim to cherish. No wonder they’re looking to scapegoat frightened students and deans.

Let’s hope that Bard conference-goers will have read the PEN reportthe Times account of it, and my own analysis of “What the Campus ‘Free Speech’ Crusade Won’t Say.”

And let’s hope that they’ll ask Lukianoff to explain his funding, premises, and the pattern and practice of his propaganda and provocations and omissions, which surround and often undermine his group’s legitimate complaints. I’ve sent these questions to FIRE myself, three times, but have never received an answer. Maybe the Bard conferees will have better luck.

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