Here’s the dilemma college presidents face in the fall: Either uphold free speech on campus and risk violent counterprotests, or ban conservative provocateurs and confirm the “freedom of speech” crisis on campuses. Either way their institution’s legitimacy is undermined.
This impossible dilemma is no accident. It has been part of a strategy, deployed first by conservatives and perfected by the alt-right. The alt-right is a nebulous, still-developing political movement, but we know at least two things about it. One, its most prominent popularizers — Stephen K. Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer — have all articulated that they seek to destroy liberal cultural hegemony, which they associate with a bipartisan, globalizing, multicultural, corporate elite, and which, they think, is perpetrated in the United States by the mainstream media and on college campuses.
The second thing we know about the alt-right is that its provocateurs seek to bait liberal institutions by weaponizing the concept of free speech, which is an issue that divides the liberal left. It is true that higher education has brought much of this on itself through the extreme policing of speech and tolerance of student protesters who shut down speakers with whom they disagree. But that doesn’t diminish the extent to which the alt-right and conservatives are using “free speech” to attack and destroy colleges and universities, which have long promoted different variations of the internationalist, secular, cosmopolitan, multicultural liberalism that marks the thinking of educated elites of both parties.
As college presidents try to figure out whether the First Amendment protects conservatives’ right to create political spectacle and instigate violence, it might be useful to recall another time when American liberals were forced to sidestep First Amendment absolutism to combat a political foe: the 1940s, when New Deal liberals purged U.S. communists from American political life.