Indulging Conservatives?


Guest blogger Eva von Dassow is Associate Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies and AAUP Chapter Chair at the University of Minnesota.

Since when is demanding that public funds be expended to indulge your wishes a conservative idea?

The student group calling itself the Berkeley Patriot and the media company of Milo Yiannopoulos successfully compelled UC Berkeley to spend close to a million dollars to host and provide security for a series of events billed as “Free Speech Week,” which failed to happen in the end.  And they promise to do it again, while threatening to sue should any of their wishes be thwarted.

Where do Milo, Inc., the Berkeley Patriot, and their fellow travelers think that money comes from?

It comes from the operating budget of UC Berkeley and the UC system, which means it comes from California taxpayers.  So does any money spent by city police to support the university in providing security.  That money can’t then be used for other needs – academics, for example – so in effect it is taken from the university’s students, and from Berkeley residents.

And money isn’t the only cost.  Employee time and labor are diverted to meeting the demands of one student group, their invitees, and their lawyers.  Students who are on campus to attend classes have to make way for – or get out of the way of – the invading crowds as well as the preparations to accommodate them.  Faculty are asked to reschedule academic events that were planned for the dates Milo wants to show up.

That’s very costly speech indeed.  And for their trouble the university administration gets accused of “authoritarian censorship” by the free-speech poser who has held the campus hostage to his whims.

In this instance it is UC Berkeley that has been the parasite’s host, but every university, public or private, is its target.  The infection is abetted by elected and unelected office-holders, most recently the U.S. attorney general, who take turns accusing educational institutions of curtailing people’s freedom of speech.  How – by failing to fully fund whatever Milo or Ann Coulter or Richard Spencer demands?

And what sort of speech do they want the university and the public to pay for?  Insults, to judge by the reported statements of speakers such as these.  Meanwhile, laughing at the same U.S. attorney general is prosecuted, using taxpayer money, as a crime.

One would gather from recent episodes like those at UC Berkeley that the values of self-declared conservatives include not reasoned debate, discipline, or fiscal restraint but incivility, self-indulgence, and draining public resources for their private gain.  The nation and its educational institutions can ill afford to appease conservatives like this.

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6 thoughts on “Indulging Conservatives?

  1. I guess we do have to ask the question: When is speech not speech? The answer for Yiannopoulos et al and the campus groups that sponsor their “speeches” is: when it’s assault on the hosting institution. And this looks like that. The latest non-event, with all its necessary preparatory expenditures, certainly does not feel like anything where an exchange of views and an opportunity to hear ideas was ever part of the plan….

  2. Intellectual freedom is not a conservative idea, but it is an idea that also protects conservatives. This is indeed money taken from the public, or the students, to protect free speech. But what is the alternative? Do you propose a tax on anyone who is protested in order for them to have the right to free speech, or a ban on their speech? Do you want to privatize the police and make everyone pay whenever a crime is threatened against them?

    People rightly condemn universities for curtailing free speech. The issue is not fully funding a speaker’s demands, but refusing to allow them to speak. Surely that counts as curtailing freedom of speech, doesn’t it, even if there are security concerns?

    It is correct to say that conservatives such as Jeff Session are hypocrites in attacking universities and the left and ignoring the right’s censorship. But the hypocrisy of conservatives isn’t a good argument for censoring their speech. Nor is the assumption that they have no ideas at all, merely insults. It’s dangerous to give the government (or administrators) the authority to assume in advance that someone’s speech will be entirely worthless and therefore can be banned.

    When Donald Trump goes golfing rather than do the work of the presidency, that’s draining public resources for private gain. When universities spend money to protect the right of conservatives to speak, that’s not right-wing welfare. It’s a fundamental part of a university’s obligation to let all invited speakers, regardless of viewpoint, express their beliefs without censorship by the administration or threat of violence.

  3. Hi, John. No one’s preventing Yiannopoulos from speaking; he can talk all he wants, and he does. With your rhetorical questions you appear to be trying to set me up as if I were ventriloquizing some type of extreme conservative. In any case, I look forward to inviting myself to hold forth at your place someday 😉 Eva

  4. No one’s preventing Milo from speaking? Certainly the protests did in February, and other people (such as Richard Spencer) have been banned by some colleges. Is your argument that if someone can speak in various places, then a ban by one university is not a problem?

    • Two questions, a smaller one pointing to a larger one. In this particular example of Milo, one might say that he is representative of a set of ideological entrepreneurs who monetize political commitments and leverage other people’s money to do so. Courts try not to let people hijack the justice system to pursue personal vendettas (which is one reason Peter Thiel’s funding of multiple suits against Gawker is troubling); why should colleges and universities let hucksters do so? Do they not have the right and the obligation to distinguish between representing and protecting meaningful speech on campus, which corresponds to its core educational mission, and speech that does not do that, but moreover likely has an ulterior commercial aim (in this regard, I see no difference between inviting Milo and Tony Robbins). One can argue that in so distinguishing one is likely to discriminate. I think that discrimination is inevitable (if one spends a cool mil on Milo, that is money that cannot go to other speech) and so an obligation. Put another way, drawing no line here is also a choice, one that leads to less meaningful speech. So, while I will fight for Milo’s right to say what he wants in public (and nothing prevents Berkeley students from hearing him in multiple channels on UC machines with tax-payer provided connectivity); I see no reason to extend or support an invitation for him to speak on campus. Again, I disagree with Charles Murray, but I can also make a case for his sincere (if IMHO flawed) engagement with ideas and policy over decades; and so I would invite him to speak and spend what is necessary to make sure that he and anyone who wanted to come had a forum in which to debate safely. What we really need to protect is dialog, not the mere fact of speech. So, I think RAB is right: we have the obligation to decide which speech matters, and we won’t always get it right; but that is better than deciding to spend a lot of money on faux (as opposed to free) speech which serves a personal commercial interest.

      • The justice system is used all the time by people with personal vendettas (defamation law is nothing but this). I hope universities don’t ban Tony Robbins or Milo. Plenty of campus speakers have books (including me) or are paid or are promoting a business or a product, so there’s economic motives all over the place. That’s not a good reason to ban anyone.

        Discrimination in extramural speakers is not inevitable, and not an obligation. To the contrary, universities have an obligation not to ban speakers. Berkeley is spending money to protect free speech, not for the sake of a particular speaker. The question is not whether you want to invite Milo to campus; the question is whether you want a university to ban him. And I think banning speakers is bad for both dialogue and free speech. Universities have an obligation to decide that free speech matters, and not judge which speakers they will allow students to invite based on the heckler’s veto (or the rioter’s veto).

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