This post was originally published at Public Seminar on January 17, 2018.
In the coming weeks, I want to write more about the meaning of free speech, how we understand free speech differently depending on how and where we are positioned, and whether our difficulty in listening to–and understanding–each other is a crucial context for exercising our first amendment rights. But since it is the beginning of the semester for those of us who teach, I want to start with the heightened conflict over speech last year among students at places as different as Middlebury College and the University of California at Berkeley. My question: are faculty doing enough to make sure that conservative students are being listened to?
These conflicts between students have their own history and context, one that is specific to the role higher education plays as a location for cultivating citizenship. For example, Young Americans for Freedom was founded in 1960 as a vehicle for uniting campus conservatives and libertarians, and has been followed by the creation of numerous other campus outreach groups that represent a long-term investment in students by the American conservative political establishment. Such groups focus primarily on nurturing future cohorts of conservative leaders, and secondarily on countering radical student organizing and what they view as a professoriate dominated by liberals who exclude conservative ideas from the classroom.
Today, well-funded campus conservative groups abound. Some of the visitors to liberal campuses–Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos–who have been greeted by enraged students and local antifa, are funded by such organizations, since few student groups can afford the five-figure speaking fee that such people command. But these controversies, in and of themselves, also become opportunities to demonstrate liberal hypocrisy about free speech when it comes to hosting far-right speakers (yes, we fall for it every time), and to put conservative campus leaders in crisis situations that they need to learn to navigate to become the activists of the future.
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