I was initially quite optimistic about my opportunity to conduct a campus-based research project as a fellow with the University of California’s newly formed free speech center in Washington DC. I figured there was good reason to believe that establishing the think tank in response to the growing issues with free speech on campuses meant the UC system was committed to ideological diversity.
I applied and was accepted to be a part of the center’s group of 10 inaugural research fellows, who were assigned yearlong, free-speech-based research projects on each of the nine campuses within the University of California system. I jumped at the opportunity to do research on free speech at the Berkeley campus.
When I applied to the free speech center, they made the role of the fellows seem quite important and framed our campus visits as key to our research. I chose to do my research project on how the campus administrators at UC Berkeley reacted to the aftermath of the Milo Yiannopoulos riots in 2017 and how that affected their ability to secure a healthy environment for free speech on campus.
Early Shift from Administrators to Students
Early in the process, I received some pushback from my handlers at Berkeley, but once I established the goals of my project, the staff at Berkeley became quite accommodating. My initial interactions with the representatives from the free speech center set off my alarms, however. Right away, I received emails from the center that marginalized the importance of my campus visit, which took considerable effort to facilitate.
While I was able to sort out my project with the Berkeley campus representatives over a few lengthy phone conversations, a subsequent phone call with the representative from the free speech center did little to affirm my initial belief that the role of fellows and our respective campus visits were an important part of the center’s plan.
Because I felt such a lack of support from the center for this initial idea, I decided to switch the topic. I switched my project focus from the role administrators play in facilitating free speech on campus to a more robust exploration of how online media has influenced free speech in higher education. While I was still able to speak with campus administrators, that became secondary to several lengthy conservations with students and professors that gave me a better sense of the learning environment on campus. I received no pushback from the center for changing my topic.
Are the Free Speech Fellows Just Window-Dressing?
Upon meeting my nine colleagues for the first time, many complimented the perspective I had chosen to take. I’d be remiss not to say the other fellows have continually impressed me despite my difficulties with the center.
As we progressed through the year of the fellowship, however, it became increasingly clear to me that the intellectual work that I and the other fellows were tasked to produce had become marginal to the center’s true goals. There will be no opportunity for us to present our work at today’s conference in DC, so the whole ordeal will just serve as publicity for the center and its star-studded advisory board. The only opportunity to present our intellectual work from the yearlong fellowship is a nebulous conference publication.
I wrote an op-ed to provide readers a concise statement of the findings that I had gathered from several conversations with students, faculty, administrators, and community members on or near the Berkeley campus. While my final thoughts are a bit right-leaning on the free speech issues plaguing our campuses and the nation, I consider my assessment fair and grounded in my experience working with members of the many interest groups.
Despite a year’s worth of my time and effort, however, the representatives from the center decided to wait until the very last minute to send a passive-aggressive email informing me that I would be the only free speech fellow whose work will not be featured in the conference publication.
My op-ed had been initially accepted, and the center had ample time to inform me if it did not match the format they were looking for. Because of this, I believe it was some of the conservative elements of my work that ultimately led to their decision to censor me.
The Center’s Behavior Disillusioned Me
My views are now in line with many of the conservative critics of the UC center, and I agree with former president of the California College Republicans Ariana Rowlands that “this symbolic action of creating a free speech center…does nothing to solve the practical problem faced by conservative students on all of the UC campuses.”
All in all my experience with the center leads me to believe it is nothing more a than a hollow PR move by the University of California system to gain political cachet in DC. I would have disagreed with President Trump’s statement that Hayden Williams, the conservative advocate assaulted on the UC Berkeley campus, “took a punch for all of us” until the free speech center decided to censor my views by refusing to publish my intellectual product.
In a conversation, Berkeley spokesperson Dan Moguloff agreed that there is a left-leaning climate at Berkeley that makes certain conservative students feel marginalized. This is what sparked Jordanian-born student Khader Khadish to found the Young Americans for Freedom chapter at UC-Berkeley. While Khadish identifies as “center-left,” his crusade against unchecked progressivism on campus inspired him to foster the sort of dialogue he was promised he’d find in America.
It’s Clear that the Right’s Speech Is Often Repressed
The recent Jussie Smollett incident was defined by the quote attributed to his alleged attackers: “This is MAGA country.” Many in our country associate this Donald Trump catchphrase with literal violence. Smollet’s manipulation of PC culture for his own fame has revealed a flaw in the way the court of public opinion deals with so-called “hate speech.”
The right correctly took issue with Smollet’s willingness to potentially incite racial violence or see innocent men punished for his fake alleged crimes. His ability to drum up so much media support out of thin air gives real credence to what many people on the right have contended for years.
Conservatives rightly believe their viewpoints are policed through protest on campus based on the wrongheaded assertion that conservatism in and of itself promotes hate. America is generally 50 percent liberal and 50 percent conservative. The glaring disparity regarding the limited presence of vocal conservatism on campus despite this roughly even split presents a slew of challenges, the most obvious being that there is a lot of truth within the conservative viewpoint.
The unabashed truth-seeking that has defined the American version of free speech has fallen to political correctness. The American version of free speech in its totality now only exists online. The truth has become secondary to maintaining homogeneity on campus.
Higher education has become a high-priced commodity designed to produce uniformity. It is no longer in the interest of the campuses to prepare students to deal with true free and critical thought, because they don’t want the instability it may cause to affect the bottom line. Politically correct culture has been instantiated on campus because a dumbed-down populace is easier to control than one capable of critical thinking.
Campuses Need More than Threatened Funds
While it is refreshing that President Trump is calling attention to the issues dealing with free speech on campus by threatening to withhold federal funding, I fear it may be too little, too late. The enlightenment ideas that define the western thought process for free speech now only exist on paper, and the “collision with error” interpretation of speech that John Stuart Mill proscribed is a far cry from our present reality. What we have is hardly a marketplace of ideas, but instead a conflict with no clear victor.
Americans’ differing viewpoints on critical issues like border control are pressing matters that need to be discussed, but most universities are too blinded by leftist orthodoxy to genuinely contend with these matters. Academia has been corroded by insularity and the American tradition of the radical use of free speech to find the truth is only upheld by comedians and online artists at this point.
A few professors have been able to commit to performing in this manner by building online audiences, but I am weary of the predictions that the future of formal education is online. Online platforms are facing a complex battle, considering the pressure they are receiving from the left and the right. Many are even prescribing government intervention for dealing with how these platforms are allowed to present information.
The course of our history has already been changed by how social media has influenced the way we interact with information. It is unclear how this will continue to play out, but online media platforms must allow free speech to flourish or risk exerting undue, biased influence on politics and discourse.