Why Universities Need the Racist Right


Guest blogger Galen Leonhardy is an AAUP member living and teaching in Illinois.

On December 19, my dear long-time friend, Starla, replied to “UW, WSU Brace for Speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, Breitbart Editor Banned from Twitter,” a Seattle Times article floating around Facebook. The article’s author, Katherine Long, tells readers that an infamous Breitbart editor, whose work represents the racist right, will speak on two university campuses in Washington State. The author continues “Thousands of people have asked UW President Ana Mari Cauce to cancel a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos scheduled for Jan. 20, the evening of the presidential inauguration, out of concern for student safety and in a plea for tolerance. Washington State University students have also appealed to their president, Kirk Schulz, to cancel a Jan. 19 speech by Yiannopoulos in Pullman.” My friend, like the thousands of other people, not just in Washington, State but also across America and even globally, asked, “Why? Why are university administrators … letting him speak?”

Ultimately, it’s a battle against right-wing authoritarianism. In the case of universities and other post-secondary institutions, we need the authoritarians.  Let me explain. A first step in the battle is to subvert the racist-right’s power by inviting their representatives into our commons, allowing them to voice their lunacy, and providing forms of resistance demonstrating our unity.  Following that path allows us to foster free speech in threatened contexts.  We need the racist right to expose itself, and the university commons is exactly the place for such things to happen because engaging the right openly strengthens academic freedom generally.

First Amendment laws and academic freedoms are interesting in that the rub remains hidden between the mountains of common practice and the plains of legal writs.  As a practicing academic, I spent the last three years, four really, caught up in a Kafkaesque experience and trying to understand the idea of free speech and the relationship between free speech, Constitutional law, and business law. Like other post-secondary educators, I believed I had the academic freedom to post my ideas on social-media websites, that I could publish drafts of essays I was working on and even post on social media my objections to work-related issues relevant to both labor discussions and to current theory in my areas of study. And that’s how I found myself caught up in the reality that post-secondary institutions represent a battleground upon which those striving to maintain the liberty to engage in the free exchange of ideas battle those supporting corporatized interests and their corresponding quest to increase domination over speech (and even course content) through the manipulation of, for example, business law as defined by Constitutional law and by organizations such as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

It turns out that some authoritarian-minded administrators in academic institutions will use business law to chill First Amendment rights because, in their perception, academic freedom is not actually supported by Constitutional law.  For them and their human resource personnel, the argument has not changed much since 1892 when Justice Holms was on the Massachusetts Supreme Court and wrote the following in response to a police officer’s claim of wrongful termination for his publically criticizing the management of his department:

The petitioner may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman.  There are few employments for hire in which the servant does not agree to suspend his constitutional right of free speech, as well as of idleness, by the implied terms of his contract.  The servant cannot complain, as he takes the employment on the terms which are offered him. (John J. McAuliffe vs. Mayor and Board of Aldermen of New Bedford)

That is, for those administrators who desire authority over the language and content of the professoriate on the job and off the job (hence, within social media as well), free speech is a myth, especially in the eyes of human resource goons now patrolling the internet to determine if employees are posting ideas that would violate whatever kinds of contrived standards a worker has somehow agreed to support in the suspending of her Constitutional rights for the sake of employment.  There is a legacy of such business-friendly rulings that allows petty corporate-minded academic officials to believe they have the authority to determine academic propriety. What they believe is that, while the government cannot make laws prohibiting speech and organization (unless eminent danger is established), businesses, and that includes public academic institutions, can regulate speech and can fire or discipline employees whose work is deemed offensive.

Fortunately, there are some protective regulations implemented over the last 120 years or so. Unfortunately, those protections are limited and unregulated as long as the institutional process of inquisition and subsequent disciplining do not cause harm. As a result, in academic contexts, authoritarian administrators using human resource goons to enforce whim-based, authoritarian determinations of propriety can discipline professors for professing whatever might be contrived as “harassment” or “threatening,” even if the accusations have no legal basis or would actually violate the protections of academic freedom.

Specifically, what I learned as a result of my Kafkaesque experiences is that authoritarian administrators can implement disciplinary actions without having to meet the burden of proof or even having to explain what the accused was found guilty of doing that warranted the determination of guilt. So it is that the lowest-level business administrators (supervisors and human resource personnel) now have more control over public discourse in general and academic discourse specifically than any American authoritarians holding government positions could currently dream to have, but it is through the available power of business and academic administrators that we can see the rise of American authoritarianism.  The power, after all, is disseminated through legislative and judicial determinations.

The fight against authoritarianism as supported by the dictates of corporate-minded legislation is not a new one.  Rather, we can perceive the struggle as a remerging conflict between those desiring to control and define the content of public intellectuals, those who perceive of academic freedom as something determined by various levels of administrative authority (as is common in public elementary and secondary contexts and in conservative corporations fronting themselves as private colleges–such as Education management Corporation and its subsidiary  Brown Mackie College, owned in part by Goldman Sachs), and those who perceive academic freedom as the needed liberty to explore reality and, if consequential, critically deviate from status quo beliefs, in other words, those who believe that academic work cannot survive without the free exchange of ideas.

Academic contexts have some protections, especially where soft law protections such as promotion being reliant on publication meld with contractual inclusions supportive of academic freedom. And there are past Supreme Court determinations such as Pickering v. Board of Education in which a teacher may not be constitutionally compelled to relinquish First Amendment rights to comment as citizens on matters of public interest.  On the other hand, the NLRB allows for employers to fire employees who post to social media under certain conditions, none of which include cases directly relating to academic contexts or to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) statement on “Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications.”  What all that boils down to is the reality that academic freedom is not guaranteed. In the end, the free exchange of ideas in academic contexts is only as real as common practice—precedent. That is, the only proof that academic institutions are actually places where the free exchange of ideas exists is in the actual existence of the free exchange of ideas.

With that in mind, if we are to maintain and even strengthen the liberty to teach and publish ideas contradictory to dominate ideology (as enforced by corporate-minded human resource representatives supporting authoritarian interests), we must allow the space for the racist right to also present ideas as well. And we must be willing to allow those ideas to compete within such public commons. We must allow compassion to compete against the abhorrence of the sadistic, and we must use our words in ways most convincing. That is, we must, like the older, wiser Justice Holms, come to understand that

“…when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas–that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. (from Justice Holms’ dissenting opinion to Abrams v. United States 1919)

This is especially important now that American authoritarianism has won the presidency and legislative majorities. The racist-right now has power in America, and its representatives want their supporters to feel threatened, a common tactic used to sway the ignorant under authoritarian leadership. A highly efficient way to bring that about currently is to have educational institutions reject the free exchange of ideas for the sake of maintaining some kind of undefined decency. Such practices would only empower the racist-right.

In short, it appears free speech is absolutely vital in order to avoid increasing the likelihood of violent conflict. For we are very much on the edge of organized resistance to the American authoritarian movement and the greater likelihood of consequential violence. The brutish racist right has established domination through the election of a corporate bastard who is obviously focused on further empowering the American plutocracy, which he openly represents at the expense of those who elected him and in stark contrast to the majority of American voters who rejected his authoritarian platform. We are only moments away from uprisings. Think about what will happen when the racist right begins to enforce domination of minority groups. There are many who would not stand idly by while a militarized police force enacted the fear-based dreamscape proposed within the racist-right’s imagining.

Yes, at this point in history, universities need the racist right. That said, the racist-right needs to begin to understand that the reality of Aleppo could well be the necessary consequence of enacting its authoritarian agenda. The racist right needs to remember what happened to Mussolini and his followers.

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