By Cornell W. Clayton, professor of political science and director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at WSU
After decades of student apathy, university administrators suddenly find themselves struggling with messy political speech controversies on their campuses.
Here in Eastern Washington, Gonzaga is in the news for denying a platform to Ben Shapiro, the right-wing provocateur whom College Republicans invited to speak. Administrators say Shapiro’s hateful rhetoric runs contrary to the Jesuit school’s mission and they worry protests will create safety concerns. Gonzaga faced a similar public backlash two years ago when it attempted to limit the audience for another speaker, the conservative conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza.
Meanwhile, WSU College Republicans constructed a mock “Trump Wall” on campus in 2016, angering fellow students and prompting demands that administrators do more to prevent hate speech at the school. The club’s president, James Allsup, subsequently participated in a white supremacist rally at the University of Virginia, spurring calls for his expulsion (calls rejected by WSU). Now the campus Republicans plan to repeat the wall stunt this spring to show support for President Trump, and, according to the current club president, “own the libs mercilessly.”
As these and similar incidents around the country demonstrate, there’s a new dynamic governing speech controversies at universities. For those who remember the 1960s, such controversies usually involved liberal anti-war and civil rights activists muzzled by conservative administrators and legislators. Today it is conservative agitators often denied campus platforms.
University leaders are not just concerned that today’s conservative agitators purposely offend groups like gays, immigrants and ethnic minorities. They also fear liability when events turn violent, as they did recently when a man was shot during a University of Washington talk by Milo Yiannopoulous, the pugnacious editor of Breitbart News.
Let’s be clear, many of these conservative provocateurs are less interested in a meaningful debate over ideas than in weaponizing and commodifying culture war issues. Right-wing groups like Turning Point USA train undergraduates to provoke fellow students, film the angry reactions on smartphones, and then post them to conservative media. Unlike earlier conservative literati like William F. Buckley or George Will, today’s popular conservative speakers—the Shapiros, Yiannopouloses, Ann Coulters or Tomi Lahrens—are not erudite intellectuals. Their talent lies more in earning millions for themselves by turning offensiveness into entertainment, complete with Hollywood-style marketing.
Find out more