Sleeper: “Free speech” on campus has a hidden agenda.

Although I had to cancel my appearance at the Sept. 18 Case Western Reserve University School of Law forum on “Freedom of Expression on Campus,” Koko Etokebe’s column published in the Sept. 15 issue of The Observer quoted me accurately as writing that colleges are “civil societies on training wheels,” with “guardrails and guidance that are set by deans and faculty.” But that’s only part of the argument I’ve made about what limits campus freedoms of inquiry and expression. Here’s the other part.

It isn’t just administration restrictions that limit such freedoms, as Case Western Reserve University did by stating that “[posting] of any derogatory, obscene, or offensive message, either explicitly or implicitly, is strictly prohibited.” (The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) singled out that CWRU policy as its “Speech Code of the Month,” undoubtedly to promote Susan Kruth’s visit here).

And it isn’t only “politically correct” students who block speech that might offend them. Nor is it only torch-bearing, gun-brandishing provocations by people who disrupt campuses where they aren’t even enrolled. (One such provocation is scheduled for next week at Berkeley.)

FIRE rightly criticizes such threats, but it has a hidden agenda: to downplay what’s really causing deans and students to restrict our freedoms and to give the impression that campus liberals are to blame for threatening free speech. The real threat is a powerful current in our national life that FIRE refuses to name and challenge: the lavishly funded, brilliantly orchestrated “free speech on campus” campaign to vindicate “market forces” that FIRE itself spear-heads.

American higher education, and your own ways of living and thinking, are being transformed right now by market riptides that a liberal education should teach you to interrogate and even to reconfigure, not only to facilitate. The more market-driven a college, the more anxious it is to restrict freedoms of inquiry and expression, as business corporations do.

Similarly, most deans and trustees aren’t devoted to political correctness; they’re coping with market pressures to satisfy student “customers” and to avoid negative publicity, liability and losses in the college’s “brand” or “market share.” The transformation of liberal-arts colleges into proto-capitalist service corporations that sell education as a career investment is generating this obsession with controlling your freedoms of inquiry and expression.

Some students do support this. Disillusioned and even frightened by the deteriorating society that casino-like financing and predatory marketing are generating off-campus, they want college to be a refuge. Some deans are trying to satisfy them. They shouldn’t.

The campaign to blame campus liberals began in 1953, when William F. Buckley Jr. helped found the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which trains students to counter “liberal” betrayals of “our nation’s founding principles—limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, market economy,… ideas that are rarely taught in your classroom.”

But it’s universities that examine “founding principles” rigorously enough to show that some of the principles contradict others. FIRE speaks of reinvigorating “the marketplace of ideas,” but ideas in a university and a democracy emerge not from market-exchange values but from open expression that money can’t buy. “You can’t build a clear conservatism out of capitalism, because capitalism disrupts culture,” said Sam Tanenhaus, who’s writing a biography of Buckley, in a lecture in 2007 at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Acknowledging this tension between today’s capitalism and democratic discussion is anathema to FIRE’s funders: the ultra-conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Scaife Family foundations, the Earhart Foundation, John Templeton Foundation, and the Koch Brothers’ DonorsTrust.

Harry Bradley was a charter member of the far right John Birch Society. So was a Birch Society board member Fred Koch, father of Koch Industries‘ billionaire owners, Charles and David Koch. Richard Mellon Scaife was an avid funder of efforts to impeach Former President Bill Clinton. He wrote a check to FIRE for $150,000 in 2013, having donated similar amounts in 2012 and 2011.

The Bradley & Bradley Foundation is one of the most aggressively, unapologetically racist large grant-makers in America. In 2010 it contributed $10,000 toward putting up “voting fraud” suppression billboards in black neighborhoods of Milwaukee that depicted a black man behind bars above the message, “Voter Fraud is a Felony.”

FIRE has won more than a million dollars from Bradley and half a million dollars from the Koch brothers’ DonorsTrust. Basing its non-profit, tax-exempt status on its commitments to address “censorship, freedom of speech, and press issues,” it deflects liberal criticism by fighting campus speech codes sometimes on behalf of “liberals,” Muslims and others. But those cases serve as protective coloration for its agenda to blame liberal coddling and progressive cry-bullying for suppressing individual rights.

The real threat is the encroachments on your dignity and rights by increasingly degrading workplace conditions, marketing come-ons, entertainment and gladiatorial sports delivered by media corporations that chase profits by going for the lowest common denominator. The Trump presidency embodies all this. But “free speech” conservatives don’t mention it, as I explained in July in “The Incredible Hypocrisy of Free Speech Conservatives” in The Washington Monthly.     

Since the First Amendment protects speech from only government restrictions, not private corporations, CWRU can be as restrictive as businesses. But since universities claim to encourage open inquiry and expression, FIRE rightly condemns their restricting of individual speech rights. But would FIRE like to see a “Foundation for Individual Rights in Employment” in private businesses? Since FIRE opposes speech restrictions at private universities where the First Amendment doesn’t apply, why not oppose it at Conoco or Citibank?

The reason is that FIRE is part of the campaign to chill challenges to the “market economy.” The same campaign includes “voter I.D.” laws to suppress turnout; “right-to-work,” anti-union laws; and the Citizens United campaign. FIRE should condemn such initiatives if it truly champions individual rights in a democracy. Blaming campus liberals doesn’t cut it.

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale and a former columnist at the New York Daily News.