E23: re:joinder - Conservative Rhetorics of Free Speech and the Academy

On today’s show, we’re getting in the summer spirit by firing up the grill and roasting some more scorching hot bad takes with another installment in our re:joinder series. In this episode, Alex and Calvin dish over two articles that make a similar specious presumption: universities are suppressing freedom of speech, and thus need to be stripped of their funding altogether. Or, at least the humanities disciplines do.

The first article comes to us from Quillette, entitled “Federal Funding, the First Amendment, and Free Speech on Campus” by Lauren Cooley. In it, Cooley makes the argument that universities which receive federal research dollars become extensions of the federal government, and are thus bound by the same first amendment laws laid out in the U.S. constitution - if true, this would essentially make it unconstitutional for such a university to deny or cancel invited speakers to college campuses. Calvin and Alex parse through some of the genuine free speech concerns laid out by the argument, while also acknowledging its flaws and contradictions - primarily, that the only examples given of “stifled” speech are already-famous people with large platforms who are bankrolled by major interest groups, as well as the stated caveat that private universities (such as religious institutions) should be conveniently exempted from adherence to first amendment principles. The fatal contradiction, however, comes from the author’s primary suggestion that President Trump can (and should) use his executive authority to cut off research funding for universities who refuse to provide a platform for the likes of Milo Yiannopolous or Peter Thiel - or, in other words, use government power to stifle and coerce speech practices on college campuses.

The second, slightly more extreme article comes from Roger Kimball via the New York Post, entitled “PC Insanity May Mean the End of American Universities.” Here, Kimball delivers a salvo of garbled metaphors and inflammatory rantings about the “violence” being committed by politically correct leftists, who Kimball claims are chilling the speech of conservative voices on college campuses. In addition to pointing out how the author over-states the “free speech problem” to an extreme degree, Calvin and Alex question his incredible assumption that this “crisis” represents “a breakdown in the basic logic of civilization.” Additionally, and perhaps most frighteningly, Kimball more explicitly calls for universities - and humanities disciplines in particular - to be called to heel through “starving” them of their funding.

We conclude our roast of these terrible takes with a meditation on the politics of “free speech” on campuses and attempts to stifle and undermine humanities research, tracing the roots of “anti-PC” reactionary conservatism in the self-contradicting ideologies of logical positivism and “Western civilization” fetishism.

Cover image source

Alex Helberg