The Real Threat to Free Speech on Campus

If one is to believe Rex Murphy, Jonathan Chait or Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, among others, American and Canadian universities have become places of repression and conformity, where true political debate and free speech have been stifled by a  culture of political correctness, trigger warnings, safe spaces and post-modernism.  As Lukianoff and Haidt proclaim in their Atlantic article from September 2015, p.c. culture on campus has become so oppressive that even comedians like Chris Rock and Jerry Sienfeld won’t play college campuses anymore. Truly the state of affairs at North American universities can’t get much worse than this.

When reduced to its bare essentials though, the arguments these men are making, that free speech on campus is under threat, is 100% correct. It is just they fail to correctly identify the true nature of the threat. The real danger to the free exchange of ideas at North American institutes of higher education is the power and influence that funders, private and public,  individuals and corporations, have over university leaders and consequently over the range of ideas that can be expressed and debated. Paul Bronfman pulling his financial support from York Universities over a painting at the York University Student’s Centre is simply the most recent in a litany of wealthy patrons attempting to use their money to buy influence and stifle ideas they disagree with.

Part of the reason that student protests get much more coverage in the mainstream media is that in order to be effective they have to be loud, disruptive and confrontational. Unlike large donors or politicians, an individual student, despite the tens of thousands of dollars in tuition they pay over their years at university, cannot simply request a meeting with the chair of their school’s board of governors. Nor do students have direct access to the president of their university to voice their complaints. As we have seen with student protests at the University of Missouri, unless students mobilize on mass and disrupt the day to day function of the university, university administrators will ignore them. Then when students and their allies do manage to cause enough disruption, their ideas are delegitimized as being the demands of radicals.

In relation to the University of Missouri protests, the vast majority of media attention has focused on the actions of one professor who called for “muscle” to remove a student journalist from one a particular demonstration. Rather than dealing with the substance of the students’ demands, over 100 Missouri GOP lawmakers have instead  called for the professor, Melissa Click, to be fired. Similarly, after a student protest at a Carleton University Board of Governors (BoG) meeting in 2015, a member of the board Michael Wernick compared the students’ peaceful, 20 minute protest to the tactics employed by Nazi “Brownshirts” and “Maoists.” Obviously, such a comparison is absurd and if student leaders compared the silencing tactics Carleton’s BoG has recently invoked to Nazi Germany or Communist China they would be totally delegitimized and ridiculed. Alternatively, Michael Wernick gets appointed to be Clerk of the Privy Council by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Thus, by forcing students to voice their demands in a loud and confrontational manner, university officials can then stigmatize and silence their demands by appealing to notions of respectability and “appropriate behaviour.”

Unlike students, when lawmakers and donors object to students or faculty expressing certain opinions, they don’t need to mobilize large-scale student protests. Rather, they can simply write a letter to the university president and demand the school take action against ideas they disagree with. It also isn’t just private funders, when it comes to universities, the state is simply the largest donor of many and is equally willing to use its financial clout to police ideas on campus.   This tactic is exactly what New York City Congressman Jerrold Nadler along with Councilman Brad Lander and other NYC politicians – including then NYC Public Advocate and now NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio – employed in 2013 to stop the Political Science Department of Brooklyn College from supporting an event entitled “BDS Movement Against Israel”. The event, which was run by college students but received the poli-sci department’s endorsement, featured keynote speaker Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the BDS movement and author of “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights.”  These political leaders opposed to the event even went so far as to threaten to cut off public money from going to Brooklyn College.  Furthermore, as writer David Palumbo-Liu documented in an extensive article from September 2015, New York lawmakers attempts to limit student expression, particularly ideas critical of Israel, are part of a broader trend. The University of California Regent Richard Blum has even gone so far as to argue that student advocates for the BDS movement should be expelled from the University of California system. Yet, rather than a series of articles from The Atlantic and The New Yorker about threats to freedom of speech, there has either been silence or tacit support for these politicians actions.

As the case involving Paul Bronfman and the painting hanging in the York University Students’ Centre demonstrate, private donors also seek to flex their financial muscle to control what ideas can be discussed on campus. One of the most egregious examples comes from William and Mary College in Virginia where conservative alumni and donors became involved in a protracted battle with then president Gene Nichol. In 2007 the alumni protested a student group organising a staging of  The Sex Workers Show, a well-reviewed variety show featuring artistic performances and speeches by sex workers. The alumni demanded that President Nichols block the performance or else they would cease donating to their alma mater. They also enlisted the aid of Virginia lawmakers who grilled William and Mary Board members in public hearings at the state legislature and threatened to cut off public funding for the college if the performance went ahead.   In the end Gene Nichols was fired and the show never happened. Yet despite these transparent attempts to stifle student expression, conservative publications like the National Review, which routinely warns Americans about how students and their allies threaten free speech, chose to openly side with the censors.

A similar event also took place at Duke University in early 2015. Originally the university had said it would allow the Muslim Students’ Association to broadcast a three-minute, moderately amplified call to prayer on Friday afternoons via speakers in the bell tower of Duke’s iconic chapel. However, the university’s decision evoked an angry response from many, most notably Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and head of the Billy Graham Evangelist Association. His call for alumni to cut off donations until Duke reversed its decision was extremely effective and by the end of the same week, fearing financial repercussions, Duke reversed its decision. Again, when donors decide to flex their financial muscle, universities are all to willing to limit students’ freedom of expression, be it secular or religious. In Duke’s case all it took was four days, compare that to the weeks, or months, of student-led protests at other schools.

It isn’t only student expression which is under threat. Large corporate donors often seek to use their financial clout to limit academic freedom. As CBC News exposed last year, one of the most recent examples comes from the University of Calgary and their bungled attempt to establish the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability at the Haskayne School of Business. Originally Enbridge had promised $2.25 million a year for ten years with the promise of future funding.   However, in exchange for the money, Enbridge sought to influence board membership, staffing and even what students received financial awards. Enbridge even hired their own PR firm to promote the institute’s launch. The cozy relationship between Enbridge and the U of C was described by professor Harrie Vredenburg as a classic case of, “he who pays the piper calls the tunes.”  In the end, two high profile U of C professors left the university over concerns about their academic freedom and Enbridge has subsequently dropped their funding by a million dollars a year, all while publicly reiterating their support for academic freedom.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that those who give the most amounts of money to universities can control what happens on campus. With declining public support for universities across North America, plus an increasingly unstable financial market that makes endowment fund incomes unpredictable, post-secondary educational institutions are forced to turn to alumni and corporate donors to make their budgets work. Also, given massive cuts in funding to public universities, particularly in Florida and Michigan, universities are much more willing to take direction from elected politicians in hopes of preserving what little public money they still receive. However, the insecure funding for most schools has created a toxic environment that truly stifles free speech. In the words of U of C professor Harrie Vredenburg, donors know that if they pay the piper, they get to call the tune, and increasingly they are doing so.

Sure, the University of Ottawa Student Federation cancelling a yoga class out of concerns over cultural appropriation makes good newspaper copy and gives morning radio show hosts (myself included) something to talk about. Yet in reality, a story like that is irrelevant. The real stories about the suppression of free expression on campus are often hidden by non-disclosure agreements, private meetings and lots and lots of money. Even when stories do come to light, the people and publications that find it so easy to criticise student leaders and academics,  frequently side with censors. Because unlike taking to task some student radical or “leftist academic” there could be actual, financial consequences to critiquing high-powered donors. So instead we get silence and silencing of student voices. But sure, it is pc culture that is the real threat…








One thought on “The Real Threat to Free Speech on Campus

  1. Pingback: What Everyone Has Wrong About Freedom of Speech | 1930s or Today?

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