Monday, April 30, 2018

A well-organized campaign to bait, discredit, and take over universities is exploiting students and manipulating the public (Michael Simkovic)

Key takeaways:

  • Many lectures about “free speech” are not really about “free speech,” but rather are intended to provoke a reaction that will discredit universities.
  • When such reactions occur, many news stories about them are created, shaped, and disseminated by a well-funded network that wants to transform and take over universities.
  • Students, professors, administrators should not take the bait; nor should journalists.

After a violent attack on civil rights protestors that left three dead and more than a dozen injured at the University of Virginia, students and administrators at Vassar became concerned when they learned that William Jacobson was coming to defend racism.  Jacobson’s libertarian hosts advertised his lecture as “‘Hate Speech’ is Free Speech, Even After Charlottesville.”  Jacobson’s previous racially charged comments and dubious assertions earned Jacobson the admiration of White-nationalist websites such as V-Dare (see also here), the John Birch Society’s New American, and Breitbart news.   

But Jacobson’s much-hyped lecture turned out to be a superficial and innocuous discussion of free speech, at the level of a high school civics class.  Jacobson’s prosaic lecture was not news worthy.  Instead, the press focused on student and university officials’ purported over-reactions to a talk about “free speech.”

Similar stories abound.  Recently, the Federalist Society invited Josh Blackman, a tenured professor at South Texas College of Law Houston’s, to lecture at CUNY law school.  Professor Blackman’s sparsely attended lecture drew protestors because of Blackman’s previous criticism of an amnesty program for undocumented immigrants and his use of language the protestors interpreted as racial dog whistling.  

A university official asked the students to be respectful, defended Blackman’s right to speak, and admonished the students “please don’t take the bait.”  One student noticed Blackman recording himself and asked Blackman, “You chose CUNY didn't you? Because you knew what would happen if you came here."  (CUNY, like Vassar, has a reputation for left-wing student activism).  Blackman deflected the question.  One protestor used an expletive, which Blackman repeated.

According to both Blackman and CUNY, the protestors were non-violent.  Security was present to maintain order.  Blackman—tall and muscular—towered over the students and appeared calm throughout the exchange. 

Right-wing journalists hyped up the incident, labelling the largely minority protestors a “mob” and “hoodlums.”  A law professor writing for the Volokh Conspiracy blog at Reason Magazine argued that the CUNY Dean should be fired.  White Nationalist websites such as Breitbart, New American (the John Birch Society), and VDare lionized Blackman as a hero.  Blackman seized the opportunities that resulted, scoring an Op Ed in the New York Daily News.

Professor Blackman’s claim that student protestors at CUNY denied him a platform is ironic.  It is precisely because of Blackman’s right-wing connections and the brief protests they engendered that Blackman was given a platform at the National Review, Fox News, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, Reason, Inside Higher Ed, FIRE, Campus Reform,, Commentary, First Amendment Watch, The College Fix, and The Global Dispatch, SeeThruEdu (The Texas Public Policy Foundation) among others.  Many of these organizations are part of the Koch Brothers’ backed State Policy Network

The purpose of media exaggeration of incidents at universities appears to be to discredit universities in the eyes of conservatives, libertarians, and moderates. 

The anti-university campaign is working.  Pew reports that individuals who lean Republican have traditionally held mostly positive views of universities, but those views became less favorable after 2010, and turned sharply negative around 2015 to 2016. 

Data from the General Social Survey suggests that compared to those with less education, college-educated individuals are actually more supportive of free expression (see also here).  Universities protect the expression and evaluation of a much wider range of views than other institutions such as think tanks, media organizations, and corporations.  Anecdotes taken out of context present a distorted view. 

The anti-university campaign appears to be supported by a network of organizations funded by wealthy conservatives and libertarians including the Koch Brothers.  In 2016, the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), sponsored an invitation-only lecture at New York’s Yale Club about free speech on campus.  Invitees included libertarian-leaning professors, graduate students and journalists. 

The speaker, UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh, encouraged attendees to push the envelope in expressing controversial conservative and libertarian views on campus, draw the ire of their university administrations and progressive students, and document the incidents for him so that he could publicize them through his blog, the Volokh Conspiracy, which was then distributed by the Washington Post.  Volokh has publicly advocated video surveillance of hecklers (“never interrupt the enemy when he is making a mistake … but always videotape him”) and using internet publicity to inflict “libertarian-approved-pain [on] university administrators.”  Volokh also advocated suing universities.  IHS-affiliated faculty appear to have made similar pitches across the U.S. 

The Koch Brothers’ funded Goldwater Institute, seized on the non-event at CUNY to push legislation to turn state universities into passive distribution channels for propaganda, expel protestors (and perhaps people who simply ask pointed questions), centralize control in the hands of political appointees, strip financial resources, encourage frivolous lawsuits, and monitor and intimidate university officials, professors, and students.  Professor “watchlists” have facilitated death threats against controversial faculty members.  An author of the Goldwater legislation, James Manley, has successfully sued to prevent state universities from protecting public safety by banning deadly weapons from campus. 

Versions of Goldwater’s proposal have already been enacted in Wisconsin—where Republicans effectively eliminated tenure protections for professors at the state university—and in North Carolina, where Republican political appointees shuttered a law school center dedicated to studying poverty (see also here) and crippled the Civil Rights Center (here and here). 

The Goldwater Institute specifically paid for Google advertising tied to search keywords “Josh Blackman” and “CUNY.” 

In 2011, at an Atlas Network dinner, the Keynote speaker Johan Norberg explained how to “win converts” to libertarianism by targeting the young and naïve:

“Get them when they’re young.  . . .  The prefrontal cortex is not really developed until you’re 25 . . . especially those parts that deal with controlling your impulses and thinking long term.  . . .  That’s a good thing . . . That’s really important. . .”

Norberg compared the young to “fish” who must be lured with the proper bait:

“Young people believe in change.  . . .  If we want someone to devote his life to [the libertarian] cause and to alienate . . . friends, teachers, parents, and siblings . . . [we must present] libertarianism [as] a radical philosophy that challenges the powerful and the vested interests . . . all those who . . . want to tell us how to lead our lives. . .”

This messaging strategy dovetails nicely with anti-university propaganda.  That same year, Walter Olson of the Koch-sponsored Manhattan Institute and Cato Institute published Schools for Misrule, which portrayed law schools as hostile toward conservative students.  Olson has little relevant experience with law school, either as a student or as a professor.  His account does not reflect the experiences of many of those who do.  But some conservative students and faculty do feel uncomfortable in what they perceive as predominantly socially liberal environments. 

Republican resentment toward universities is evident at the national level.  Recent legislation increased taxes on universities while leaving other 501(c)(3) educational organizations such as think tanks unscathed.  

Universities face a well-funded, well-organized, and cynical campaign to discredit them.  It would be prudent to teach students to express their views without providing fodder for those who seek to use them for propaganda.  The most effective way to counter the campaign against universities may be to share information through a resource such as Sourcewatch, and then schedule more interesting, possibly unrelated events to compete with provocateurs.  Few things discourage would-be provocateurs more than empty seats.  Those who feel they must protest should do so in a quiet, gracious manner that emphasizes human dignity and mutual respect.  Universities should strive to welcome those with different values and avoid even a hint of political coercion. 

When students are goaded into tactical mistakes, journalists should ask themselves whether mean-spirited provocations by seasoned political operatives preying on vulnerable teenagers and inexperienced young adults genuinely deserve news coverage.  The United States faces serious economic challenges which get far less attention than this stage-managed political theater.

I have had the privilege of teaching, learning from, working with and befriending decent people of all political persuasions over the years.  It disappoints me to see some of them allow themselves to be used as cannon fodder in a misguided war against education. 


UPDATE 5/30/2018: Mike Hilzik at the Los Angeles Times has covered the Goldwater Legislation controversy.  

Mike Hilzik, How a right-wing group's proposed 'free speech' law aims to undermine free speech on campus, Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2018.


Related Coverage:

Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Law in Cyberspace, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Student Advice, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink