Above Photo: By Gallo Images / Sowetan / Thulani Mbele
A multimillion-dollar campaign to stifle protest in universities.
As far-right speakers face loud student opposition at their university speaking gigs, conservative lawmakers in several states are introducing legislation that cracks down on protesters. As uncovered by UnKoch My Campus’ Ralph Wilson, numerous states have borrowed their so-called “campus free speech” bills from the rightwing Goldwater Institute, which is funded by conservative plutocrats including Charles Koch and the Mercer family.
The intent of these bills isn’t to protect student speech; it’s actually to suppress it in favor of guest speakers who, at times, support white nationalism, LGBTQ discrimination and other hateful worldviews. By funding the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute, wealthy conservatives are enabling the promotion of hate speech while stifling student dissent. Whether or not Koch, for example, agrees with the hate speech he indirectly sponsors, he certainly benefits from a more friendly academic environment for far-right ideologues who often deny climate change and praise his extreme brand of tax- and regulation-free capitalism.
The Goldwater Institute’s model bill allegedly ensures “the fullest degree of…free expression,” but it explicitly states that “protests and demonstrations that infringe upon the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity shall not be permitted and shall be subject to sanction.”
It goes on to say, “Any student who has twice been found responsible for infringing the expressive rights of others will be suspended for a minimum of one year, or expelled.”
Under this code, imagine that a student protests a climate change denier and gets a brief suspension. Then the College Republicans group brings in a full-on white nationalist. Will this student do what she thinks is right and protest a racist who’s given a platform at a respected university, or stay home because she’s risking expulsion? This campus “free speech” legislation is essentially an attack on student speech and an elevation of ultra-conservative ideas that many people in university communities think have no place in American society.
“These laws would create a chilling effect on students who reject the idea that white supremacists or climate deniers are simply representing an ‘opposing viewpoint’ that should be tolerated, and who are rightfully relying on their first amendment freedoms to stop the rise of fascism and prevent global climate catastrophe,” Wilson, UnKoch’s senior researcher, told AlterNet. The group has been conducting research into Charles Koch’s considerable ideological donations to higher education, most of which goes toward free-market programs.
Charles Koch Foundation representatives say that conservative views are underrepresented in higher education, and the foundation’s massive university donations—which fund free-market academic centers, professorships, grad students and lecture series—are necessary for academic freedom. This view is shared by other conservative billionaires and higher ed donors including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who recently said to the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference, “The education establishment [tells you] what to think…the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.”
What the Kochs and their allies really want, by amplifying the voices of far-right professors and guest speakers, is to steer society towards a tax- and regulation-free plutocracy. Charles and David Koch, who together are worth nearly $97 billion, have been working toward this goal for over 40 years.
In 2014, Virginia passed the nation’s first law banning so-called “free speech zones,” which restrict protected speech to designated areas often far away from events that students want to protest. The following year, Missouri enacted a Campus Free Expression Act forbidding “free speech zones” without imposing punitive measures.
But while more recent legislation bans free speech zones as well, it also restricts student free speech in scenarios where, lawmakers claim, free speech is protected.
The protest crackdown
Legislators in some states including Illinois and Tennessee have introduced bills in 2017 that explicitly mention sanctions on student protesters. Illinois’ bill, proposed by two Republicans, lifts this language, and additional passages, nearly verbatim from the Goldwater model. Also sponsored by Republicans, the bill in Tennessee—nicknamed the “Milo Bill” after an event at the University of California at Berkeley featuring the racist “alt-right” icon Milo Yiannopolous was canceled due to protests—directs universities to enact free speech policies that include “sanctions for anyone under the jurisdiction of the institution who interferes with the free expression of others,” and it gives faculty “the right to regulate class speech.”
In North Carolina, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest intends to work with legislators on a Restore Campus Free Speech Act, which would create “a discipline policy that would punish students who shout down visiting speakers or deprive others of their right to free expression, a tactic commonly known as the ‘hecklers’ veto.'”
Last year, Forest floated a measure calling on the University of North Carolina’s board of governors to create a system-wide policy that would impose harsh penalties, including expulsion, on students, staff and faculty members who disrupt classes, public meetings or events. The Koch-funded Generation Opportunity lauded the effort at the time. Forest has said that yelling at a guest speaker “has never been free speech,” and he’s called campus protest methods “terrorist tactics.” No one introduced a free speech bill that year.
Other proposed laws, like North Dakota’s, which was introduced by six Republicans, omit sanctions provisions but state that a university may restrict student speech if it blocks entrances to buildings, obstructs traffic or interferes with events. Much of the North Dakota bill comes directly from the text of the Goldwater model legislation. A large group of most Republican legislators in Virginia has a new bill in play that includes much of the Goldwater language but stays away from restrictions on students.
Additional campus free speech bills have been introduced this year in Colorado (sponsored by two Republicans and one Democrat) and Utah (sponsored by 14 Republican state representatives). Florida could be next. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin has a “free speech” provision in his proposed budget.
Big money driving campus ‘free speech’ efforts
One of the model bill’s authors, Stanley Kurtz, is a longtime fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, which applies “the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy,” according to its website. The center has received millions of dollars in donations from the foundations of the conservative Bradley, Scaife, Olin and Earhart families, as well as hundreds of thousands from two vehicles for wealthy right-wing donors, Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund.
Billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch are responsible for more than $9 million in contributions to the two groups from 2006 to 2015, according to the website Conservative Transparency and additional research by this author. Much of the $6.3 million that went to Donors Trust came in 2015. A now-defunct Koch nonprofit, the Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, donated $190,000 to the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and the Charles Koch Foundation has given over $9,000.
The Goldwater Institute’s James Manley, senior attorney, and Jonathan Butcher, education director, also co-authored the “campus free speech” model legislation. The institute took in nearly $2.5 million from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund from 2002-2015, according Conservative Transparency and additional research. The Charles Koch Foundation has pitched in $75,000. Manley formerly worked at the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the two Donors funds. Butcher was a research assistant at the heavily Koch-funded Heritage Foundation from 2002 to 2006.
Says Wilson, “These bills take Koch’s academic presence to the next level, creating protected space to reveal the white supremacist roots of Koch’s free market crusade, like Koch’s close friend and white nationalist Charles Murray who has taken to campuses to espouse the genetic superiority of white males.”
Another Koch-funded think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, reportedly has student groups at nearly 80 colleges and universities. These groups bring in AEI fellows like the eugenicist Murray to speak on their campuses. Recently, Murray attempted to give a lecture at Middlebury College in Vermont but was stymied by vociferous protests. He had to end his speech early, and he and a liberal professor were attacked on their way out.
Students at UC Berkeley and area residents protested Yiannopoulos, whom the College Republicans had invited to speak. The protests led to fires, vandalism, and reportedly, fights. Until recently, Yiannopoulos was an editor at Breitbart News, known as the online “platform of the alt-right,” which happens to be funded by Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, the far-right mega-donors who are major Donald Trump backers and whose family foundation has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Goldwater Institute. The younger Mercer was even a member of Trump’s transition team.
After the Berkeley incident, Trump threatened the funding of UC Berkeley.
Violence against a speaker, a professor or an onlooker is certainly unacceptable. So is inviting a white supremacist to speak at an institution of higher learning, and so is preventing students and faculty from protesting such a speaker. Plenty of right-wing billionaires likely don’t agree with white nationalist ideas, and by funding these so-called campus free speech bills they’re trying to advance free-market principles. But regardless of motivation, this campus “free speech” movement is spreading the hate of white nationalism, the racist “alt-right,” Islamophobia and homophobia—not to mention climate change denial and economic policies that benefit only the very wealthy—on campuses filled with young students. Conservative, corporate millionaires and billionaires are at fault.
Alex Kotch is an independent investigative journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on Twitter at @alexkotch.