What We Can Learn from the Campus Free-Speech War

Main quad on the UConn campus. (Public Domain/Wikimedia)

Friends of liberty are few. But not as few as we might think.

In July, free-speech advocates at the University of Connecticut took on a student body hellbent on destroying free speech on campus. A group of students pushed the university’s student government to adopt the “UConn Statement,” a petition for the university to uphold civil discourse on campus. According to the statement, UConn “has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”

Such attempts at restriction came swiftly and viciously. The simple move to promote the First Amendment on campus was met with stunning bigotry and intolerance from UConn’s student body, and with it a barrage of hateful and violent threats. Students hurled accusations of white supremacy at UConn’s student body president, an immigrant from Honduras. One of UConn’s First Amendment advocates was harassed with racial slurs and even received a video of an ISIS beheading.

These students stared down an entire campus culture that had turned against them for their devotion to free speech. Though public sentiment remained negative and combative, people began voicing private support for UConn’s free-speech warriors. Both faculty and students expressed agreement with the UConn Statement, and the First Amendment coalition on campus is moving forward with speaker events and increased activism. Free-speech debacles such as UConn’s illustrate valuable lessons that advocates of conservatism would do well to bear in mind.

In my discussions with UConn students, both conservatives and those on the Left, I heard one description of the current political climate that piqued my interest. “Liberals give in to radicals too easily, and conservatives have some racism problems.”

Innumerable members of the political Right cheer on the former characterization — the latter is met with defensiveness, skepticism, and a hearty chorus of “but look at the Left.” This is why conservatives lose on the culture side. We know that the stereotype isn’t true. But the culture doesn’t, and we won’t fix it by yelling. Segments of the modern American Right have embraced a reactionary response to conservatism’s unwarrantedly negative cultural portrayal. But this tactic is not going to win over political moderates.

Visceral reactions are perfectly understandable in response to the far Left’s blatant lies about conservatives. But we must change that tactic to persuade the persuadable. Moderates with deeply held biases against conservatism won’t be won over by our most extreme and caustic voices and arguments. If we are to make cultural headway, our strategy must be responsive, not reactionary. College students who advocate free speech are willing to do so with their ideological opponents, working with members of the opposite political party at institutions like UConn to advance the First Amendment. So should the movement more generally.

The battle for free speech is not limited to those on the political right. UConn’s free-speech warriors are not all conservatives. The First Amendment coalition on college campuses includes everyone from pro-Trump Republicans to classical liberals to libertarians to devoted Democrats. The idea that only the political Right is devoted to free speech is simply not true. The UConn situation is a perfect example of how the First Amendment has a unifying power beyond mere party.

We can’t hammer the moderate Left and expect to win in the current moment. These are people with legitimate beliefs in things such as free speech and American greatness. Why don’t they just join the Right? Cultural stereotypes, discussed above, play a large role.

This fight hasn’t broken down strictly along lines of Right and Left. The relevant categories are, instead, advocates and enemies of liberty. Lord Acton noted that “at all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare.” But they are not as rare as it may seem. If we can step off the reactionary pedal and unite against the enemies of liberty, we can create the kind of coalition that all authoritarians fear — a diverse, intellectually impenetrable, cultural powerhouse dedicated to the advance of liberty. The current moment is not about ignoring what divides us. It’s about accentuating what unites us and never apologizing for that strategy.

Given conservatism’s negative cultural portrayal and the necessity to join forces against freedom’s enemies, we conservatives have to make it clear that our doors are open. We have to expressly say that we’re willing to work with the politically moderate. The moderate Left is being eaten alive by the Democratic Party. Democratic legislators who stand up to the party’s radical gatekeepers are rapidly being beaten down. This gap between the radical Left and their moderate colleagues is our opportunity. We have to take it. Unapologetically.

UConn’s free-speech advocates realized that. Their no-nonsense approach gives First Amendment supporters a clear line of attack against the enemies of liberty who seek to suppress them. We can learn from that. We can overcome negative cultural stereotypes by being unafraid to work alongside other political moderates against the current radical moment. We can be responsive, not reactionary. And we can look the enemies of liberty in the eye and never apologize for what we’re about to do.

That’s how we can fight back: With many allies by our side.

Isaac Willour is a journalist for The College Fix and an editor for the Grove City College Journal of Law & Public Policy.

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