Editor’s Note: Teri Kanefield is a UC Berkeley-trained lawyer and the author of numerous books, including a biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the winner of the 2015 Jane Addams Book Award, “The Girl from the Tar Paper School.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
During his rambling, two hour talk on Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, President Donald Trump said he soon will sign a free speech order for college campuses. What he left out was that the justification for the order is based on a false interpretation of what is actually happening at America’s colleges.
Trump claims he plans to cut off federal funding, at least in part, to colleges that do not protect views across the political spectrum. To make his point, he called Hayden Williams, a conservative activist, onto the stage. Williams alleges that he was punched at the University of California Berkeley when he tried to express a conservative viewpoint.
In fact, what appears to have happened is that Williams – who was not a member of the university community – wandered onto the campus and got into a political quarrel with another person, who was also not a member of the university community. The man who allegedly assaulted Williams was promptly arrested. Berkeley released a statement explaining that the incident was being “willfully distorted and inaccurately reported” and that the campus remained committed to freedom of expression.
For years, those on the right and far right have complained that universities shun their ideas. In 2017, when white supremacist Richard Spencer was disinvited to speak at Auburn University – after the campus police cited safety concerns – he sued the university for violating his free speech rights, won his suit and was ultimately permitted to speak later that year.
And, last year, protests at Berkeley erupted ahead of a planned appearance of right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. Students and other members of the community didn’t want him there because of his alleged neo-Nazi and white supremacist views. (He denies that he is a white supremacist.) In response to the backlash, Yiannopoulos accused the protesters of being opposed to free speech. He also accused them of being “intolerant” of ideas they don’t agree with, thus creating a situation in which people protesting intolerance were accused of being intolerant because they shunned ideas like white supremacy.
So, when Trump says he wants people with varying political views to have protection under the First Amendment, he likely means people like Yiannopoulos. His threat to pull federal funding from any colleges that do not comply will, presumably, give the federal government the power to demand some time on university platforms for far-right ideas, including, potentially, theories of white supremacy and denials of climate change.
Trump – who has autocratic tendencies – has learned how to weaponize the values of liberal democracy, like free speech, to undermine liberal democracy. In other words, he is creating the conditions where climate change deniers may be able to demand and be given equal time on the stage with Nobel Prize-winning scientists. Or theorists of white supremacy may be able to demand – and get – space in highly respected peer-reviewed political science or sociology journals.
Of course, Trump’s proposal is more than a path to undermine truth and the integrity of universities. It’s a brilliantly diabolical way to normalize and disseminate right-wing propaganda and undermine factuality itself.
Yale history professor Timothy Snyder explains in “The Road to Unfreedom” that authoritarian takeovers begin with the would-be authoritarian “suppressing factuality.” He explains how modern-day authoritarians, even aspiring ones, have devised ingenious methods for torpedoing truth.
Perhaps the best example of that is Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose techniques include overwhelming his people with what RAND researchers Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews refer to as a “firehose of falsities.” Putin allows the truth to be presented to the Russian people, but he crowds the truth with so many lies that people become confused and cannot sort out the truth from the lies. Eventually people give up trying. When people can no longer distinguish truth from lies, the public sphere necessary for democracy breaks down.
In this scenario, it’s impossible to speak truth to power. And this is why American universities need to do their best to shield against the spread of disinformation – and to create spaces for serious conversations grounded in truth.
Of course, I understand that those on the far right – people like climate-change deniers, Milo Yiannopoulos and others – are frustrated that universities are not always inviting places for their ideas. But if they want their ideas to be taken seriously, then they must make more persuasive and factually-based arguments for the validity of those ideas. People who stand on a university platform or whose work appears in the pages of well-respected journals have earned – not demanded – their right to be there. It’s time for the far right to do the same.
Should Trump actually hand down such an order, universities will most likely find themselves embroiled in lawsuits as they continue treading the path between protecting serious debate about the issues of the day and giving people who want to spread lies a license to poison the debate.