Campus Free-Speech War: Lessons from UConn Fight
Friends of freedom are few. But not as little as you might think.
In July, free speech advocates at the University of Connecticut clashed with a student body determined to destroy free speech on campus. A group of students pushed the university’s student government to adopt the “UConn Declaration,” a petition calling on the university to support civil discourse on campus. According to the statement, UConn “has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a freedom of debate and lively and intrepid deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”
Such attempts at restriction came quickly and brutally. The simple move to promote the First Amendment on campus has encountered astonishing bigotry and intolerance on the part of the UConn student body, and with it a barrage of hateful and violent threats. The students launched white supremacist charges against the president of the UConn student body, an immigrant from Honduras. One of UConn’s First Amendment supporters was harassed with racist slurs and even received video of an ISIS beheading.
These students stared at a whole campus culture that had turned against them for their dedication to free speech. Although public sentiment remained negative and combative, people began to express their private support for UConn’s free speech warriors. Faculty and students have expressed their agreement with UConn’s 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 keep in mind.
In my discussions with UConn students, both conservative and left-wing, I heard a description of the current political climate that piqued my interest. “The Liberals give in too easily to the Radicals and the Conservatives have problems with racism. “
Countless members of the political right applaud the first characterization – the latter runs up against defensiveness, skepticism and a warm chorus of “but look at the left”. That is why the Conservatives are losing out on culture. We know the stereotype is not true. But the culture doesn’t, and we won’t fix it by shouting. Sections of the modern American right have adopted a reactionary response to the unwarranted and negative cultural portrayal of conservatism. But this tactic will not win over political moderates.
The visceral reactions are perfectly understandable in response to the extreme left’s blatant lies about the Conservatives. But we have to change this tactic to persuade the persuasive. Moderates with deeply held prejudices against conservatism will not be won over by our most extreme and caustic voices and arguments. If we are to make cultural progress, our strategy must be reactive and non-reactionary. University students who advocate free speech are willing to do so with their ideological opponents, working with members of the opposing political party in institutions like UConn to advance the First Amendment. The same goes for movement more generally.
The battle for free speech is not limited to those on the political right. Not all UConn free speech warriors are conservatives. The First Amendment coalition on college campuses includes everyone from pro-Trump Republicans and mainstream liberals to devoted libertarians and Democrats. The idea that only the political right is dedicated to free speech is simply not true. The UConn situation is a perfect example of how the First Amendment has unifying power beyond the party.
We cannot hammer the moderate left and hope to win in the present moment. These are people with legitimate beliefs in things like free speech and American greatness. Why don’t they just join the right? The cultural stereotypes, mentioned above, play a big role.
This fight was not broken down strictly along the right and left lines. The categories concerned are rather the defenders and enemies of freedom. Lord Acton noted that “at all times sincere friends of liberty have been few and far between”. But they are not as rare as they seem. If we can step off the reactionary pedal and unite against the enemies of freedom, we can create the kind of coalition all authoritarians fear – a diverse, intellectually impenetrable cultural power dedicated to the advancement of freedom. The current moment is not to ignore what divides us. It’s about accentuating what unites us and never apologizing for this strategy.
Given the negative cultural portrayal of conservatism and the need to join forces against the enemies of freedom, we conservatives must make it clear that our doors are open. We must expressly say that we are ready to work with the moderates politically. The moderate left is devoured by the Democratic Party. Democratic lawmakers who oppose radical party guards are quickly defeated. This gulf between the radical left and its moderate colleagues is our chance. We have to take it. Shameless.
UConn’s free speech advocates get it. Their pragmatic approach gives supporters of the First Amendment a clear line of attack against enemies of freedom who seek to suppress them. We can learn from it. We can overcome negative cultural stereotypes by not being afraid to work alongside other political moderates against the current radical moment. We can be reactive, not reactionary. And we can look the enemies of freedom in the eye and never apologize for what we’re about to do.
This is how we can fight back: With many allies on our side.