Conservatives once laughed at radical campus politics, imagining that upon impact with the “real world,” blue-haired social justice warrior activists would have to grow up and confront the hard realities of the capitalist marketplace. Instead, what’s becoming increasingly clear is that academic leftism is metastasizing off-campus, spreading into some of the world’s largest corporations as well as institutions of culture, with graduated millennial employees as its carriers.
While the right wrestles with how to deal with big technology companies’ hostility to conservative voices on their platforms, the source of that enmity goes mostly unremarked upon: Google’s highly credentialed workforce has roughly the personal politics of a faculty lounge. Regrettably, universities don’t live up to the Las Vegas adage–what begins on campus definitely does not stay there. It spills over into every aspect of our broader culture, from complaints about actors not precisely matching the intersectionality profile of the characters they portray, to the leftward tilt of America’s corporations.
That’s all the more reason for Republicans on campus to take the ideology that threatens free speech in universities seriously and advance legislation to protect one of America’s most cherished freedoms. Without strong, smart pushback at the academic source, the country will soon be dealing with even more censorious consequences of an ideology that does not recognize its opponents’ rights to speak.
Congress is currently considering the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), the law that governs the doling out of billions to universities in the form of direct grants and subsidized student loans. President Trump’s executive order on free speech, which directs agencies to ensure that public universities are in compliance with the First Amendment, is massively popular across political and racial categories, although the limits of executive action prevent effective enforcement of its dictates.
Even so, key Republican leaders, like Senator Lamar Alexander (R–Tenn.), are resisting calls from among their colleagues and conservative groups to attach protections for free speech to the endlessly flowing spigot of cash from Washington. Instead, Republicans seem to be substituting real support for free speech with a toothless resolution, which pays lip service to calling out speech codes and speech “zones” as contrary to the First Amendment.
The HEA already has similar language, which, due to lack of any enforcement mechanism, has not stopped the routine and serious speech violations occurring at universities across the country. In place of one of the most foundational political battles of our time, Republicans are prioritizing for their HEA negotiations a kind of technocratic, No Child Left Behind-style matrix accessing the value of various college degrees.
Unless the right gets serious about the role massive taxpayer sponsorship plays in keeping the institutional left bankrolled, recent debates between traditional small-l liberal conservatives and those who want to use the power of government to advance communitarian ends are irrelevant to the actual political battleground. Libertarians, populists, and traditionalists should all be able to agree that government shouldn’t throw its weight heavily in favor of the left in the culture wars, yet that’s exactly what’s happening in education and many other key areas of policy.
Academia’s radicalization—and the resulting unconstitutional policing of speech—should be the highest priority for Republicans in HEA reauthorization. If the formerly Grand Old Party lacks the spine to cut off the massive flow of subsidies to colleges and universities, they should at minimum require that public universities respect their constitutional obligations under the First Amendment in order to receive their taxpayer largesse.