The Volokh Conspiracy

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Campus Free Speech

Instant Karma's Gonna Get You

Should conservatives worry about breaking the norm of political non-interference with state universities?


Jennifer Frey, a philosopher at the University of South Carolina, had a very interesting tweet in response to the Ron DeSantis higher education reforms unveiled yesterday.

I'm very sympathetic to this form of argument in general when it comes to free speech debates, but in this case I don't think conservatives will find it very persuasive. It is worth unpacking why.

In short, we are further down the game tree than Frey assumes that we are.

For me a very important argument against censorship regimes is that you should not trust the censors or assume that they will always agree with you. If you set up a speech code, you better think carefully about whether you'd be ok with your enemies implementing it. A free speech regime is to an important degree a non-aggression pact. I won't try to censor you, if you don't try to censor me. Breaking that rule or norm risks retaliatory moves down the road.

So should folks like DeSantis worry about what will happen to state universities when their political opponents win political power, whether in Florida itself or in blue states generally? I don't think that is or should be a particular worry for them. So why not?

Imagine a left-wing DeSantis comes to power and is quite willing to meddle in universities to advance their own ideological vision using the kinds of tools DeSantis is now using and might use in the future. Should conservatives fear that possibility and so restrain themselves now? Not really and here's why. The status quo in universities ALREADY looks like that is the case. They are already ideologically captured. What would a left-wing DeSantis do to get universities to behave more in accordance with his preferences? Probably nothing. Mission already accomplished.

From a conservative perspective, there is little to fear from breaking down the norm that keeps politics out of universities. From their perspective that norm is already gone. Politics is already in the universities, but it came from the inside. The calls are coming from inside the house! It might even be the case that a left-wing DeSantis would try to pull universities to the right. The median Democrat is currently to the right of American universities. Universities are the party of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, not the party of Joe Biden.

Where does that leave the distrust of censors argument in favor of free speech in the case of state universities? I've been screaming the warning for awhile now. The "other party" that might get control is in fact Republicans like DeSantis. The chickens are already coming home to roost. The censorious on college campuses have been emboldened by the assumption that they will always be in charge on campus. The dean will always be my ally, so why worry? That certainly was not the expectation of students and young faculty in the 1960s when they were pressing to expand free speech protections on campus and disempower administrators, but that is the expectation now. Administrators, students, and young faculty now join hands to draft and implement campus speech codes and enforce political orthodoxy.

That would work out just fine for campus activists if universities were self-contained. If the censored on campus have nowhere to go and no hope of gaining control over the tools of censorship, then that disempowered minority is out of luck and the empowered majority can have a field day. Checks on authoritarian power are politically sustainable in competitive multi-party systems, but when one side thinks it has long-term domination over the political system then that side's willingness to tolerate checks on its exercise of power fades away. That is true of authoritarian leaders in one-party states, and it is often true of the campus left when it comes to university operations.

But universities are not self-contained, as the DeSantis situation demonstrates. There are external levers of power that can impact universities, and those levers can be pulled by conservatives. Donors, alumni, media, politicians. "Power switching hands" in the university context means power shifting out of the hands of left-wing students, administrators and professors and into the hands of right-wing politicians. We are currently witnessing what happens when the power switches hands. Frey pitches her point as a warning about the future, but she would have been better served by making that point in the past. The future is now.

And that is why we should always listen to E.E. Schattschneider, the great political scientist of the mid-twentieth century. One of his crucial contributions was his analysis of expanding the scope of conflict. As he observed,

The outcome of every conflict is determined by the extent to which the audience becomes involved in it. That is, the outcome of all conflict is determined by the scope of its contagion.

If you are losing a fight, you try to pull new allies into the fight and change the balance of power. For Ukraine fighting a Russian invasion, that means pulling in the United States. For conservatives on campus, expanding the scope of the conflict means appealing to people like DeSantis to try to get them to weigh in. And now they are. The audience is becoming involved in the conflict, and the scope of the conflict is expanding.

If power switches sides in the Florida statehouse, the worst that can happen from a conservative perspective is that things go back to the way they are RIGHT NOW. Universities are already in the worst case scenario from the perspective of many conservatives. No place to go but up. That is how you get Flight 93 elections and conservatives rallying behind Donald Trump, and it is how you get DeSantis higher education reforms. I do not think we are yet to the crisis point, but plenty of conservatives do. If you share their assumptions, then they think it is about time to even the playing field on campus.

I think my disagreements with the DeSantis response to the troubles on college campuses are pretty clear. I have been beating that horse for awhile now. I think the end result of this conflict will be bad for universities and free inquiry. But Frey's argument won't cut any ice with conservatives. The potential bad outcome of this, for conservatives, is not that Democrats in the future behave like DeSantis. The potential bad outcome is that universities continue down their current path. I've also been warning the left on campus that if they did not clean up their own house there would be a day of reckoning from the political right. That day is arriving faster than I expected, and I'm hardly happy about it.

More outside political interference with how universities operate will also not be healthy for the intellectual climate of universities. Free inquiry will be constrained whether there is left-wing political interference or right-wing political interference. But let us not pretend that free inquiry is not being constrained on college campuses right now.

Telling conservative politicians and voters that DeSantis is setting a bad precedent? Well . . . . that's going to fall of deaf ears.