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The Language of Campus Misinformation
The real threat to free speech in American higher education
Contemporary universities face many challenges, even looming crises. Manufactured outrage about so-called free speech crises or pseudo-psychological speculations into the mental health of thousands of college students do not meaningfully inform the public about the most serious challenges to higher education today. Free speech and academic freedom on college campuses are endangered—but not in the ways that agents of campus misinformation insist.
The most critical threats to free speech, academic freedom, and the free-flowing exchange of ideas in universities today are external rather than internal.
The current wave of one-party political efforts to regulate or censor academic content in colleges and public schools did not appear out of nowhere. Gene Nichol, professor of law and former president of the College of William and Mary, warned in 2019 about increasing “governmental suppression of academic freedom—in particular, legislative, and political interference with academic inquiry.” Such attempted governmental suppression emerged in several notable forms over the course of the 2010s. Republican-controlled legislatures used the threat of severe budget cuts to compel changes in academic or administrative policies from state universities. Such legislatures frequently sought to punish faculty or student groups for freely protesting Israeli policies toward Palestinians. Political appointees to governing boards of state universities increasingly included hyperpartisan actors hostile to publicly funded education and pro-diversity messages on college campuses. The Goldwater Institute (a publicly unaccountable partisan think tank) drafted model “campus speech” legislation and promoted it among Republican-controlled legislatures. The misleadingly named and highly punitive “Campus Free Speech Act” was designed to intimidate students or faculty from engaging in free political speech or assembly under threat of accusation and punishment from other members of those campuses. Legislatures in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Wisconsin advanced measures modeled on this template in the late 2010s. “These efforts, funded in part by big-money Republican donors,” The New York Times reports, “are part of a growing and well-organized campaign that has put academia squarely in the cross hairs of the American right.”
Formidable threats to free speech on college campuses are quite real—but not because of supposedly coddled students or allegedly censorious diversity policies.
These individual threats, moreover, are unfolding against the backdrop of global trends in eroding academic freedom. Scholars at Risk, an international network devoted to documenting threats to scholars around the world and providing sanctuary for them, characterizes the sum of international attacks on academic freedom as “a crisis moment.” The accelerating attacks on academic freedom that it documents range from “wrongful imprisonment and prosecutions of scholars” to “lawmakers’ efforts even in more open societies, including the United States, seek to restrict what can be taught in lecture halls.” The increasing popularity of campus misinformation coincides with such increasing governmental curtailments of academic freedom.
I classify campus misinformation as a mode of popular discourse that either distracted from or helped to rationalize enhanced attempts to inhibit free speech and open inquiry in U.S. higher education from the mid-2010s forward. One of the commonest claims of such misinformation—that college campuses now predominantly censor free speech and restrict diverse viewpoints—mirrors the semantic ploy of the Goldwater Institute “Campus Free Speech Act.” That erroneous assessment of campus culture rests on a specious premise: that universities must demonstrate commitments to artificial parity or “balance” among liberal and conservative viewpoints to truly safeguard free speech and academic freedom. Such highly circumscribed and punitive definitions of free expression artificially promote the speech or ideas of some at the expense of others—including potential criminalization of on-campus activities.
The language of campus misinformation has helped to normalize the idea, outside of state legislatures, that something deeply wrong is happening on college campuses or that large majorities of deluded faculty and students have adopted radical ideas. Describing university administrators as “ideological overseers,” portraying politically active college students as pathologically “triggered,” and mocking institutions of higher education as “safe spaces” became fashionable ways to assert one’s intellectual bona fides. Two things can be true at once in this context: self-described conservative and libertarian figures have sought to politically capitalize on those largely false assumptions, but cynical tropes about “campus culture” grew in popularity across many different social and political groups from the mid-2010s forward.
Such language offers a way of talking about college campuses that confirms pre-existing prejudices and provides seemingly simple explanations, if not scapegoats, for complex shared problems. The following excerpts provide a brief introduction to the ostensibly common script that reappears in different sources of campus misinformation. Attorney Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt published an influential 2015 article in The Atlantic aboutalleged dangers of “trigger warnings” on college campuses:
The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. … [T]his movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. … It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.
President Barack Obama made the same argument, during a political town hall in Des Moines, Iowa, the very month that Lukianoff and Haidt’s article appeared:
I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative, or they don’t want to read a book if it had language that is offensive to African Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. … I don’t agree with that either—that when you become students at colleges, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.
Brietbart News, a hyperpartisan website frequently accused of promoting nativist and ethnocentric ideas, was one of many such outlets that retold the same story during the late 2010s:
Universities were once a beacon of free speech, but today, measures are being put in place to stifle speech under the guise of protecting students. . . . Today, speech is subdued by creating and implementing concepts such as “free speech zones,” “safe spaces,” and “trigger warnings,” among many others. These all act to censor speech and shield students from hearing opinions that differ from their own.
The adherence of so many different sociopolitical figures to the same tropes and argumentative conceits suggests degrees of commitment to normalizing a contrived worldview rather than fully informing people about the complexities of higher education. My approach to misinformation, based on this illustration, does not amount to an attempted debate with any one kind of public figure or organization. I assume, rather, that misinformation develops through the recycling of key tropes and argumentative turns among several different groups. Eventually, a comprehensive vocabulary emerges that helps members of those groups make preferred, albeit questionable, sense of the world. The benefits of making sense of the world in those preferred ways may override habits of critical thinking even for distinguished and learned public figures.
Unconventional key terms or tropes reappear across the previously quoted statements from remarkably different social or political figures: trigger warnings, safe spaces, speech zones or speech codes, oversensitivity among college students or a desired to be shielded and protected from ideas that make them uncomfortable. These nearly identical key terms or tropes, sustained over a period of years in many different public forums, reflect a relatively common underlying worldview.
That worldview coalesces in the following core assumptions: College campuses dangerously cater to undergraduate students. Those students irrationally crave confirmation of their existing naïve and radical ideas. Higher education now mostly consists of ongoing efforts to prevent such students from overtaking and shutting down entire campuses. College campuses are therefore proving grounds for allegedly radical takeovers of civic institutions.
This kind of language turns fixations with miscellaneous conflicts on specific campuses into sweeping condemnations of higher education in general. That language also turns speculative theories or stereotypes about large groups of students and faculty into allegedly accurate depictions of their supposedly dangerous psychology or motivations.
I encourage a different framework of debate that better informs the public about issues of academic freedom from multiple constructive viewpoints. Understanding how stereotypically liberal or conservative viewpoints operate within social groups is important. Using those political stereotypes as a dominant lens to assess the complexities of higher education can be reductive and misleading. Engaging in public dialogue about important civic institutions without relying on stereotypes about conservative and liberal identity as a primary, all-purpose analytic lens can empower even people who do not belong to universities to better understand the most serious threats to free speech and academic freedom on college campuses—and, by extension, threats to civil liberties writ large.
The above is an excerpt (modified for clarity) from Campus Misinformation: The Real Threat to Free Speech in American Higher Education by Bradford Vivian (Oxford University Press, 2022).