The Trump administration is sending mixed signals when it comes to who represents the real threat to free speech and expression in America. On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared before students and faculty at Georgetown University’s Law Center where he warned that “freedom of thought and speech” are “under attack” on America’s campuses.
“The American university was once the center of academic freedom — a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas,” Sessions said. “But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”
“In this great land, the government does not get to tell you what to think or what to say,” Trump’s attorney general added. Coming on the heels of Trump’s decision to breathe new life into a dormant controversy involving the right of National Football League players to demonstrate in opposition to police violence targeting African-Americans—a proclivity he said should result in these protesters termination—these sentiments sound a discordant note.
It’s not just the players, either. When asked about ESPN host Jamele Hill’s claim that Trump was a “white supremacist,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called those remarks a “fireable offense.” Coming from the most powerful office in the land, it’s reasonable for any employer to take these comments as more than just a pointed suggestion. They might have some teeth.
That is the contention made by the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, who argued that the true threat to free speech in America today is not on college campuses but in the Oval Office. Quite unlike radical, often violent, activists like Antifa or censorious faculty who make a virtue of denying conservatives a platform for their ideas, Trump is the executor of government authority. Moreover, the lesson of Trump’s rise is that conservatives are not the high-minded stewards of enlightened free expression they pretend to be. They are as energized by the prospect of punishing their political adversaries as anyone; a claim that seems to me beyond debate.
Finally, though, Serwer makes a more disputable claim: “Campus violence is rare, but it also hardly stifles conservative speech,” he wrote, “more frequently, it backfires, enhancing the stature of conservative speakers, making them martyrs to right-wing audiences, and in some cases helping to sustain careers that could not thrive in the market absent support from wealthy conservative patrons.” For the moment, that seems to be the Trump effect, too.
Trump single-handedly resurrected the protest movement among prominent black athletes and ensured that not only would entire teams now take the knee before the national anthem but so would their white colleagues on and off the field. ESPN’s Hill has not been fired in the weeks that elapsed since Huckabee Sanders recommended it, though her profile on the network has declined (a business decision that might have more to do with increasingly political content alienating ESPN’s core audience).
Trump’s behavior isn’t just un-presidential; it’s un-republican. Conservatives should be careful about cheering him on, seeing as he’s just barely holding his coalition together while mobilizing a broader opposition. The president has flirted with denying public funding to institutions like the University of California, Berkeley or the taxpayer-backed stadiums that serve as America’s secular churches, but he hasn’t yet pulled that trigger. It’s easy to see where Trump and his government represent a potential threat to the constitutional right to free expression, but it’s harder to see where this threat is made kinetic. As Sessions said at Georgetown, “The president has free speech rights, too.”
As for college campuses, however, whether or not conservative ideas are popularized by vandalism and physical assaults meted out by unhinged student radicals seems immaterial. The fact of the matter is that it isn’t just right-wing provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos who have been run off campus. He is joined by the likes of lecturer Christina Hoff Sommers, IMF chief Christine Lagarde, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn. “No platforming” these speakers, as New York University Vice Provost Ulrich Baer advocated, may popularize their ideas among people who are already frequently exposed to them, but they do nothing for the national discourse. And when Middlebury College students batter a professor to protest Dr. Charles Murray, his lecture isn’t what makes headlines.
On American campuses, an ethos that draws a direct equivalency between challenging speech and literal physical trauma is taking hold. A racial slur is not protected speech, declared the Harvard Crimson’s student-run newspaper in 2012. It’s “an act of violence.” “[I]f people are given the resources to learn and either continue to speak hate speech or refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted,” Wellesley College’s student-run newspaper agreed in 2017. A 2015 survey of 1,000 matriculated students nationwide found 53 percent agree that “choosing to use or not use certain words can constitute an act of violence.” Another poll that year found that 71 percent of freshmen believe colleges should “prohibit racist/sexist speech” on campus. Forty-three percent want “extreme speakers” banned. These findings dovetail with a 2010-11 poll of faculty, which found that 70 percent of women and a plurality of men (the results were only broken down by gender) think colleges should “prohibit” speech deemed bigoted.
A more recent survey found a majority of college students believe it is acceptable to shout down a controversial speaker and nearly one-fifth say it’s okay to respond to speech with which they disagree with violence. Lecturers like Fletcher School Professor Daniel Drezner suggest the worrying over this poll among conservatives is hysteria, and it would be if it were just one poll unsupported by evidence of censoriousness and rising violence. But it’s not.
Of course, it isn’t Antifa who is in power today, but Trump and his acolytes. By any rational calculation, the administration deserves more scrutiny than do college-age students and their aged instructors who live through their radicalism vicariously. But college-age radicals grow up. Today, they are simmering in institutions in which it is common to favorably compare costumed maniacs braining people with bike locks to the Boys of Pointe du Hoc. Tomorrow, they will be the secretary of education, attorney general, and president of the United States.
Trump is an awful steward of the powers of the presidency, but he has not yet abused his power to censor his opponents. The ostensibly powerless on campus, however, absolutely have. Ignoring that to make a partisan point would be supremely irresponsible.