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The “Free Speech” Charade

What Michael Bloomberg and Charles Koch really mean when they say colleges are "stifling free speech."

ALAIN JOCARD / Getty Images

In this graduation season, college students across the country are making final preparations to enter the “real world.” For years, they’ve been told colleges are heterotopic spaces where free speech is dead and students are coddled, whereas the “real world” is a massive free-speech zone where they must fend for themselves. The latest such scolding comes from Michael Bloomberg and Charles Koch in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Why Free Speech Matters on Campus.” This unlikely pair offer a number of views with which we should all agree, including, “The purpose of a college education isn’t to reaffirm students’ beliefs, it is to challenge, expand and refine them,” and, “Through open inquiry and a respectful exchange of ideas, students can discover new ways to help others improve their lives.” But Bloomberg and Koch aren’t simply interested in “free speech” in the way these eloquent, brochure-ready statements suggest. Rather, “free speech” is a way of framing their ideological intervention as if it’s bipartisan and value-neutral, which it isn’t.

As any free-speech advocate will tell you, the boundaries we set for a debate can be as influential as the arguments made and evidence presented within those boundaries. It’s just that not all free-speech advocates are intellectually honest about the speech boundaries they’re setting in the act itself of advocating for free speech. To be more specific, Koch and Bloomberg undoubtedly care about free expression in the abstract; but when they take issue with “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” they do so with their own heavy investments in what people research, learn, and discuss in college. Koch’s own model of higher education philanthropy is fundamentally about creating “safe spaces” for very particular forms of free-market ideology. As Dave Levinthal reported last year in The Atlantic, “Koch education funding … sometimes comes with certain strings attached.” 

At the College of Charleston in South Carolina, for example, documents show the foundation wanted more than just academic excellence for its money. It wanted information about students it could potentially use for its own benefit—and influence over information officials at the public university disseminated about the Charles Koch Foundation.

It sought, for one, the names and email addresses—“preferably not ending in .edu”—of any student who participated in a Koch-sponsored class, reading group, club or fellowship.

Levinthal’s reporting demonstrates that in what Bloomberg and Koch call the “marketplace of ideas where individuals [should] not fear reprisal, harassment, or intimidation for airing controversial opinions,” Koch is instrumental in creating his own conditions for “reprisal, harassment, or intimidation” of those whose work and views don’t align with those of his foundations and associates. It’s easy to appear ideologically neutral in philanthropy when you have enough financial resources to contribute something to every cause, but between Bloomberg’s track record on K-12 education in New York City and Koch’s interventions in higher education, it’s disingenuous for them to pretend that the ideal of free expression is all they’re after. Like anyone else, Bloomberg and Koch value some kinds of speech more highly than others.

The curious consequence of this type of free-speech advocacy is that it actually betrays the fundamental virtues of a free marketplace of ideas. As Bloomberg, Koch, and countless other free-speech advocates would have it, the “marketplace of ideas” is actually more like a communist scenario in which all speech units—racist remarks and peer-reviewed studies—have equal value, such that minimizing certain kinds of speech as bigoted or inferior is tantamount to censorship. Ironically, for Bloomberg and Koch, consumer marketplaces are free to ascribe value to inferior and superior products, but once colleges start assigning different values to speech, it’s suddenly a threat to “open minds and rational discourse.” 

For example, Bloomberg and Koch correctly note that “many ideas that the majority of Americans hold dear—including that all people should have equal rights, women deserve the right to vote, and gays and lesbians deserve to marry whom they choose—were once unpopular minority views that many found offensive.” But do Bloomberg and Koch really imagine that, like those who fight for gender and racial equality, those wearing blackface Halloween costumes to parties or vandalizing campus facilities with swastikas scrawled in feces or arguing that women would be better off if financially dependent on men are on the cusp of social enlightenment? Are students—particularly marginalized students—being irrational when they protest bigoted speech and actions, or advocate for their own safety on campuses rife with violence? Should colleges give their resources and platforms to low-value speakers like Suzanne Venker and John Derbyshire, even though students and their families pay us tens of thousands a year to guide them rigorously through the highest quality material on offer?

Indeed, by arguing in platitudes about the value of free expression writ large, free-speech advocates like Bloomberg and Koch collapse all forms of speech into one, forging a veneer of ideological neutrality where none exists. They want to frame the discussion such that when a student or a college makes a value judgment about speech, it’s taken as a form of censorship; but when an organization like the Charles Koch Foundation exerts ideological influence on colleges, it’s just philanthropy.

For the past few years, “free speech” has become a shortcut for shifting the frame of argument away from the content of bigoted speech itself and toward broader discussions of the value of free expression—a value we all share. The strategic advantage is obvious: It’s much easier to defend the right to bigotry with grandiose statements about freedom of expression than it is to defend the substance of what speakers have to say.

Thus, when a campus is embroiled in protests (speech) over bigotry or disinvited speakers, the real censorship happens by ripping the debate away from the substance of marginalized students’ concerns and focusing instead on “free speech”—that is, on the sensitivities of those who would rather not have to think about their capacity to hurt or offend. But an intellectually honest free-speech advocate wouldn’t cry censorship; they’d instead address the substance of the speech being censored or marginalized, and argue for why that speech deserves to be heard on a college campus in the first place.

However, that’s the kind of open debate that Bloomberg and Koch don’t want to have, because that would mean forcing them to defend bigoted speech on its own merits. It would also mean acknowledging the threat to free expression on college campuses that’s posed by extraordinarily wealthy donors who attach ideological conditions to their donations, particularly as the landscape for state and federal higher education funding continues to shift. What does it mean for academic freedom or scientific objectivity for someone who holds the Charles Koch Chair of Economics? What does it mean when market valuation trumps moral or ethical inquiry? 

We need to be clear, then, that it means next to nothing to argue broadly for “free speech on college campuses.” We all want that; and for the most part, we have it. If Bloomberg and Koch really want “robust dialogue with their fellow citizens,” they could start by acknowledging that they wield more stifling influence, and on a greater scale, than any provoked student, radical professor, or heavy-handed administrator does.