What Conservatives Could Actually Do to Bring Free Speech to the University

President Trump’s priority of fighting the culture wars over the political wars bolsters Andrew Breitbart’s claim that “politics is downstream from culture.” But this assumption is narrow and self-defeating. It ignores the ability of a president and a political movement to shape culture.  It can lead to a failure to recognize the ways in which politics can address imminent social problems.

The limits of the Trump/Breitbart approach are especially evident when it comes to solving the crisis of free speech on college campuses. Celebrating the right of provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos to make mockery of the left on college campuses does not provide conservatives any lasting change needed to ride out the culture war and ultimately win back the soul of the University. Rather, given the state of American power, both local and national, conservatives must pursue legal avenues for securing an atmosphere favorable to conservative opinion on state-funded public universities. This does not begin with changing hearts and minds, but with securing a lasting change in the legal sense that will reform speech codes on campus, and if necessary, defund the diversity apparatus sitting at the root of the problem itself. Change the laws and funding now, and change minds later.  When the university is once again a place where conservatives have the force of law on their side, they can work to address the dissenters of conservative opinion knowing that the rules are even-handed and the system in which they persuade is just.

I come to this belief from a position of sensing who your real friends are in a moment of crisis. Recently my father, who is a fully tenured professor at Boise State University in Idaho, published a piece titled article “Transgender Activists Are Seeking to Undermine Parental Rights,” in which questions are raised concerning the “rolling revolution” of progressive reforms that have transformed marriage, its community of affection, and its purposes for moral development and child raising. In his view, these state reforms had consequences for parental rights, some of which were beginning to play out in schools and other state funded foster care systems. Immediately, a backlash of student activists made a petition calling for him to be fired. The dean of the School of Public Service at Boise State, Corey Cook, renounced him as a bigot, and Francisco Salinas, the Director of Diversity and Inclusion, published a piece calling him a neo-Nazi whose ideas were dangerous to have presented in a learning environment. Flyers declaring “you have blood on your hands, Scott Yenor!” circulated around on the Boise State campus. At that moment when support was most needed, my father received little support from his faculty colleagues or the administration.

Anyone who has spent more than five minutes thinking about Idaho and its constituents can sense that the broader state is not of the opinion of Cook, Salinas, or the student activists. These university careerists are outliers whose views make Boise State a little blue island in a sea of red. Idaho’s state legislature has an 84% Republican majority, and perhaps even the Democrats would be more or less sympathetic to free speech pleas on campus. Given these encouraging numbers, lobbying the state representatives to reform how state money is used and leveraging that power over a university’s attempt to curtail free speech should appealing to conservatives who wish to reform the University. It is certainly within the bounds of what could be done from the standpoint of federalism and state power, for state legislatures who provide funding to public universities should have an interest in how public universities conduct themselves. The Yenor case, where a tenured, respectable academic received such unjust backlash for his scholarship, provides a ripe opportunity for political action.

Legislatures are primarily concerned with having good citizens capable of contributing to the common good. Supporting and encouraging the robust exchange of ideas, as it is central to the common good, should be a central requirement for public funding. Taking legal steps to secure free speech and reasoned debate is the surest way that conservatives could win such a victory. Not every problem in the university can be solved within the University, and making the blood of leftists boil comes at a cost of our own dignity. Advancing conservative opinion on campus through the dignity of law means that the conservative camp will no longer have to be bundled up as the ones who support odious racists or other provocateurs to speak at Universities. It will provide them with room to breathe, so that they can properly take up the longer, more difficult task of convincing students of their ideas because they are true, not because everyone has a right to express them.

But what does this look like? Conservative professors have been fired, denounced, and threatened all over the country.  This gives many states the opportunity to bring a bill to the floor. For Idaho, it could be called “the Yenor Amendment.” For Wisconsin, it could be “the “McAdams Amendment.” in Washington, we could introduce the “Weinstein Amendment, whose case indicates this is not a partisan issue. The list goes on. At the moment, Republicans control 32 state legislatures, 17 of which are “veto-proof”. They also control 33 governorships. State legislatures could begin by demanding that publicly-funded schools adopt free speech codes as a condition of their funding.

The Goldwater Institute’s model legislation is an excellent starting point for such free speech legislation.  This legislation affirms the importance of free speech on campus, prevents administrators from disinviting speakers, provides for disciplinary actions against students who would interfere with such speakers invited to campus, and, among other things, puts administrators on notice that any attempt to stifle debate will be met with legal action. Either the law passed in Tennessee, or the handling of the case by the University of Missouri could be used as a standard model to defund campus radicalism. Missouri’s Republican legislator Mike Lair learned that the best way to get the attention of the Universities was through public money. The rest of the country should take heed.

But protecting free speech is not enough.  Legislatures need to remove obstacles to viewpoint diversity on campus.  Unfortunately, in the name of diversity the university has attempted to enforce and encourage a culture of victimhood, where students are encouraged to have thin skin, shirk from debate and the exchange of ideas, and retreat to a safe space where micro-aggressions are identified and penalized.  Campus directors of diversity and inclusion are paid to find these victims and address their grievances.  As universities across the country are finding out: the more diversity officers; the more grievances!

States could defund offices of diversity and inclusion as the latest spearhead of campus radicalism. These departments often work to undermine a university’s commitment to diversity of opinion of campus.  They purvey the idea that “hate” speech should be a crime under American law and a violation of campus norms.  Salinas, the Director who denounced my father as a Neo-Nazi and blamed him for the violence at Charlottesville, is not just a third-rate incompetent fascist: his office is a glaring affront to a university dedicated to rational inquiry and a robust exchange of ideas.  Any public university that tolerates the existence of such offices is on a slippery slope toward the curtailing of free speech and real diversity of opinion.

How to eliminate these positions depends on the way in which budgets are passed and positions are funded at public universities across the country.  Sometimes those offices are funded by state funds, and of course every effort should be made to defund them.  At other times, universities fund those offices through student fees. Legislatures could cut funding across the board when universities attempt to sneak such offices through the budget process under the table. Every state legislature should take up such issues and exert what political control they can through this process: surely some states would adopt strict measures, and some may, sadly, reject them altogether. But leaving it up to the social laboratories of each statehouse would be both prudent in the long run and diffuse the tensions on the universities themselves in the short run.

In the meantime, conservatives willing to defend Yenor on the grounds of free speech should see that those who deny basic notions of biology and their relation to gender will quite often reject the idea that one has the right to express those opinions. The fact that young authoritarians have huddled into the corner of those not willing to leave these opinions up to debate should not come as a surprise. And the extent to which campus activists denounce Yenor with a type of religious fanaticism show the many leaps of faith they have made to reach the conviction that he be fired. Of course, if we can confidently engage on Universities, and provide more reasons for legal action, it would make sense to continue doing so. But in these moments of gloom, it is still good to take confidence in the silent majority of students everywhere who would have no problem with the laws being changed to reflect the value of free inquiry on campus. After proceeding to a legal security in the present, the longer and more difficult task of changing minds and challenging opinions can be done with the required sense of courage and civility.