Free Speech Then and Now: The FSM and the Alt-Right on Campus

BY SUSAN HEGEMAN

We’ve had a tumultuous fall in Florida. It began in August, shortly after the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, when Richard Spencer, one of the speakers in Charlottesville, applied for a speaking venue at the University of Florida. UF initially denied his request, citing safety concerns, especially after it came to light that “alt-right” groups such as those that appeared in Charlottesville were planning to converge next on Florida. But after Spencer’s representatives threatened legal action, and with a delay for Hurricane Irma, it appears Spencer will now get his chance to speak on the University of Florida campus in October. Universities across the country, including Michigan State, Penn State, and Texas A&M are currently in the same situation, facing similar concerns about how and whether to host this deeply controversial speaker with a history of association with racist violence.

The purpose of Spencer’s “danger tour” of universities, like that of “alt-light” provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’s aborted “Free Speech Week” at Berkeley, is twofold: to publicize their explicitly intolerant and anti-democratic views and to drive home a narrative about universities, a favorite target of the political right, as a haven of unbridled political correctness. Ideally, they want to show that it’s not the racist right, but the universities that are the real sites of fascistic intolerance: tu quoque! In this sense, people like Spencer really can’t lose.  They are either denied their venue and get to claim that politically-correct faculty and students are worse than Nazis, or they are granted it, and get to test the creaky limits of liberal tolerance in a public venue—possibly via violent clashes with protesters.

In so many ways, Spencer’s campus speaking tour seems like a parodic inversion of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s.  The leaders of the Berkeley FSM had been politicized and trained in the Civil Rights Movement, facing down Klansmen to register voters in the segregated South. Spencer, on the other hand, is a preppy racist who advocates “ethnic cleansing.” The FSM was comprised of students, angered that the university was preventing them from organizing on campus. Spencer is an outsider to the universities he visits, ready to pay thousands of dollars in venue and security fees to promulgate his widely unpopular views. Spencer brings the free speech controversy to campus with him. Most people on the campuses he visits—the students, faculty and staff, and the administrators alike—just want him to go away.

These differences speak to the sharp historical divide between state universities in the Cold War-era moment of the Free Speech Movement and our current neoliberal one.  In my essay, “Oppenheimer’s House; or, the Contradictions of Academic Life from the Cold War to Neoliberalism,” I offer some comparisons between these two moments, as they relate specifically to academic freedom. While we tend to think of the Cold War as a period of overt violations of academic freedom in the form of imposed loyalty oaths and a rooting out of “subversive” professors, this was counter-balanced in some ways by an academic culture that tended to give academics a fair amount of latitude—indeed, freedom—to govern themselves and establish their research priorities. Both of these elements of academic freedom were the products, in different ways, of the postwar university’s partnership with the interests of national security.  Today, the university is defined by a different alliance, with for-profit corporations.  And, in turn, academic freedom, both in terms of freedom of research and expression and the freedom of self-governance, is in many respects circumscribed by corporate models of profit-taking and employee management.

This general framework is also helpful for thinking about the situation of campus free speech, between the Free Speech Movement days and that of Richard Spencer and the resurgent far right. Indeed, as Robert Cohen puts it in his biography of FSM leader Mario Savio, the Free Speech Movement emerged from a campus context that was “a strange amalgam of freedom and repression.” The “repression” included a rule dating back to the 1934 San Francisco general strike that banned any kind of  “political advocacy” on campus. But within that repression, with roots in the successive red scares of the 1930s and 1950s, Berkeley offered an institutional context that allowed the FSM to exist and evolve.  This was characteristic of University of California President Clark Kerr’s view of university leadership, in which he saw limiting political speech on campus as a reasonable tradeoff for allowing the university and its faculty to go on about its business without interference from the state legislature and the local power elites.

Thanks in part to the victories of the FSM, there is now a general consensus (and a body of case law) that holds that universities should not be in the business of restricting public speech on the basis of content. And, far more than in the 1960s, current public universities are intensely attuned to public image, with an eye not only to state legislators and local power brokers, but also to donors and the parents of current and prospective students. The neoliberal university is forced to address questions of free speech with great care, and usually does so using tools borrowed from corporations, including vigorous legal and public relations self-defense and management of speech and behavior borrowed from corporate human resources. The result is a different kind of repression of free speech than in the 1960s. The model of censoring public political speech in order to protect a self-governing community of scholars is now in effect inverted, so that public speech on campus is widely allowed, but objectionable utterances or behavior by individual members of the university community are institutionally managed and controlled.

Many corporate-model university restrictions on speech (trigger warnings, safe spaces, sensitivity training), the very things conservatives rail against as examples of out-of-control “political correctness” on campuses, were created in the name of student safety. Richard Spencer’s “danger tour” of universities, however, presents an altogether different kind of free speech and safety challenge for the neoliberal university. This is all too clear after the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, and in the wake of a terrifying uptick of racist incidents on campuses nationwide.

Guest blogger Susan Hegeman is a professor of English at the University of Florida. She is the author of books and articles on the intersections of US literature, culture, and the social sciences. From 2014 to 2017, she served as the president of the University of Florida Chapter of United Faculty of Florida (UFF-UF). She can be reached at shegeman@ufl.edu.

One thought on “Free Speech Then and Now: The FSM and the Alt-Right on Campus

  1. One example of today’s corporate approach is risk management. In the 1960s, conflict and violence was far more common on campus, and the idea of a massive security presence was viewed with disapproval. The idea of spending $800,000 for security for some guy on campus would have been unthinkable. The Alt-Right certainly does want to prove that universities are repressive. The question is why so many leftists want to help them do that.

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