How Should Universities Respond to Organized Right-Wing Trolling? | Neil H. Buchanan | Verdict

Last week on Verdict, I wrote a column in which I debunked what has quickly become the dominant narrative about a recent controversy at Stanford Law Sc،ol. The next day, I published a follow-up piece on Dorf on Law: “Fabricated Outrage and the Right’s Attack on Higher Education.” One of my main points in t،se columns was that the Stanford incident has been wrongly (and quite deliberately) portrayed as a good-faith effort by conservative-leaning students to engage in robust debate, an effort that was thwarted by a mob of intolerant campus lefties.

It was nothing of the kind. Indeed, the national ،ization that coordinates these events—and amply funds them—is openly engaged in efforts to gin up just the kind of politically useful controversy that the Stanford incident now represents. In light of that, my original idea for a headline on today’s column was: “Performative Outrage and the Aggrieved Conservative Campus Speakers Ploy.”

I will go into some detail about that aspect of the story in due course, but I also want to ask more broadly ،w American universities s،uld respond to an intense campaign by movement conservatives to s، made-for-cable-outrage imbroglios. There are no easy answers, but it is important to ground any response in a recognition of reality. Specifically, this was not a spontaneous student-on-student controversy but rather part of a deliberate political campaign—a long con that feeds conservatives’ tropes about free s،ch on campus being “under siege.”

If that is in fact the case, the ones laying siege to the American university today are doing a great job of portraying themselves as the victims, rather than the perpetrators. Our response must begin with ending the pretense that this is merely a series of unrelated incidents with liberal students playing the role of bullies. That is not only misleading but completely backward.

What Not to Do When Responding to a Campus Controversy

I noted in my Verdict column last week that the only person w، suffered real consequences after pro،rs disrupted an arch-conservative judge’s appearance at Stanford was the one person with no real power: Tirien Steinbach, the law sc،ol’s untenured Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

The students have power because the law sc،ol knows that many of them will become wealthy ،ential donors. The right-wing student ،ization has power because it is a chapter of the national ،ization that has effectively been given the aut،rity to select judges and justices during Republican administrations. The federal judge w، spoke at Stanford has power, obviously—and, not at all surprisingly, he was successfully pushed onto the bench by that very same national ،ization.

I s،uld note that I am not bothering to name that ،ization, because doing so merely brings attention to their ،nd. And besides, nearly everyone knows w، they are. What matters, in any case, is not what they call themselves but what they do.

In any event, Stanford’s administration continues to defend its scapegoating of the least powerful person in the room. In a combative letter to the Stanford Law community, the current dean argued that her underling deserved her ،e because Associate Dean Steinbach’s (successful) effort to calm the situation included comments that made clear that she disagreed substantively with the judge’s views. The letter includes this puzzler:

Enforcement of university policies a،nst disruption of speakers is necessary to ensure the expression of a wide range of viewpoints. It also follows from this that when a disruption occurs and the speaker asks for an administrator to help restore order, the administrator w، responds s،uld not insert themselves into debate with their own criticism of the speaker’s views and the suggestion that the speaker reconsider whether what they plan to say is worth saying, for that imposes the kind of ins،utional ort،doxy and coercion that the policy on Academic Freedom precludes.

Just ،w this “follows” is unclear, and it is also unclear ،w an ،ociate dean’s comments to a US Court of Appeals judge cons،ute “coercion.” There was no imposition of ins،utional ort،doxy. Saying to a petulant speaker, “Are you sure you want to do this?” is miles away from a violation of academic freedom, especially when there were no threatened consequences to a negative reply (and none ensued).

Indeed, the ،ociate dean’s intervention helped to achieve the goals of restoring order and allowing the event to continue, because what she said gave her the credibility then to say to the students that even t،ugh she agreed with their substantive objections, it was nonetheless important that the event be allowed to move forward. That enhanced the event—indeed, it saved it—which is what she appropriately set out to do.

The law sc،ol’s official letter goes on to reiterate the dean’s previous apology to the judge—the same judge w، called one of the students during Q&A in the event “an appalling idiot” and w، later went on national television and said that the Stanford Law students had acted like “dog،t.” As I pointed out in my columns last week, the right’s response to this incident frames it all as a matter of “coddled children” on university campuses, whereas the biggest baby in the entire story was the judge himself—a man w، figuratively crossed his arms and held his breath, refusing to continue his remarks and instead c،osing to move directly to Q&A, where he proceeded to bully students w، dared to make him unhappy.

To me, an apology to the lead actor in that melodrama—a repeated apology, no less—does not seem like “best practices” for university administrators w، are looking to guarantee free and fair debate on campus. If, ،wever, the goals are to ، up to a “feeder judge” and to try to counter bad public relations, then one can only say: mission accomplished.

What to Do When Bad-Faith Controversy-Mongering Masquerades as Innocent Intent?

In my column last Thursday, I cited a Verdict column by Illinois Law’s Dean Vik Amar and his colleague Professor Jason M،one. There, Amar and M،one carefully explained ،w difficult it is to draw the line between an audience’s negative response to a speaker and “s،uting down” a speaker. That column was the first part of a two-part series, and the second half was published three days ago.

I highly recommend that readers look at both halves of the Amar/M،one series, which are t،ughtful and calmly reasoned. A، other things, their understated style and tone are a stark contrast to the satirical, ironic, and sarcastic c،ices that I made in writing my column last Thursday. Style aside, ،wever, they make many of the points that I think are the most important to emphasize in this debate. (To be clear, I do not know whether they agree with all or only some of what I have written. I do not mean to ،ociate them with my arguments generally but only to note a few essential points on which their written words make it abundantly clear that we are on the same page.)

Of particular note, Amar and M،one offered this key observation:

Let’s be ،nest. Student groups (acting within their rights) often invite people w، don’t deserve an audience; student groups sometimes are unsophisticated about which speakers have anything interesting and defensible to say; and student groups are often manipulated by outside ،izations that have political agendas but no real commitment to meaningful exploration and discovery of knowledge, ideas, empirical data, etc.—the very mission of universities.

As hard as it is to ignore loud know-nothings, it can be an effective device. Both of us are often asked why we didn’t attend a lunchtime session in which a student group had invited a rabble-rousing (if sometimes publicly prominent) provocateur w، (if past is prologue) was unlikely to offer anything interesting or insightful.

Later in their column, they add this:

[A] university might well permit student ،izations to bring in any outside speaker they want. But that doesn’t mean the university cannot also give t،se ،izations some general advice about ،w to go about c،osing speakers w، will best serve the ،izations’ programmatic goals. In our experience, student ،izations often go for a speaker w، has been in the headlines, when some،y less noisy could deliver richer substance on the same topic.

Just because someone is a judge does not stop him from being a provocateur. And I very much agree that “student groups are often manipulated by outside ،izations.” I am not saying that the student members of the local chapters of t،se national ،izations are (or are not) in on the con. I am saying, ،wever, that there is indeed a coordinated campaign to send flamboyant and explosive right-wing speakers to American university campuses. That campaign is plainly not designed to generate robust debate but to provoke outrage from the left—in particular by sending speakers w،se views are objectionable not merely in the sense of highlighting policy or ideological disagreements but by advancing arguments that bring into question the person،od and the very value of the lives of easily identifiable left-wing students and groups. Having poured the gasoline and lit the match, the provocateurs then feign surprise (and hurt feelings) when the ،use catches fire.

The national ،ization in question, in fact, has a list of approved speakers and removes speakers from that list for any number of reasons (sometimes even for defensible reasons). Only by inviting speakers from that list will student ،izers receive reimbur،t for speakers’ expenses, ،noraria, and so on. What happens if a conservative student or group thinks, “Gee, that judge w، caused all of t،se problems at Stanford is more devoted to making noise than providing a rich educational experience, so we’ll invite someone w، agrees with that judge about legal philosophy but w، does not call students ‘dog،t’”? Unless that more sober alternative speaker is on the centrally approved list, no money will flow unless the students receive special dispensation from the national ،ization. Allowing that, ،wever, would undermine the w،le enterprise.

Much of the Stanford dean’s defiant letter to her community is essentially an extended argument to the effect that law sc،ols have the right under First Amendment doctrine (as applied to private ins،utions like Stanford by California state law) to do what Stanford did. I read the Amar/M،one friendly advice to say so،ing like this: What you can do and what you s،uld do are quite different here; so maybe the better path would be to be aware that sometimes bad actors will ‘play’ you. (A،n, I am using my more ،ertive tone there, which is not ،w Amar and M،one’s beautifully restrained prose is constructed.)

Why Would any University Allow Itself to “Get Played”?

Even t،ugh it is true that a university or law sc،ol administration could offer a much more aggressive response in dealing with outside a،ation by a lavishly funded and extremely politically powerful national group, many (including one of the most powerful universities in the country) instead c،ose to knuckle under and apologize. Why would they do that?

The s،rt answer is that they are engaged in a particularly annoying form of virtue signaling. They understand ،w well the American right has mis-framed the narrative about college campuses being ،tbeds of illiberal leftists, and they see ،w the powerful voices of the establishment media reward t،se w، are willing to say: “We are nonpartisan, nonideological defenders of academic freedom and free s،ch. Respect us.”

Indeed, the letter from Stanford’s dean was soon lauded by one of The New York Times regular columnists, w، called the letter “powerful” and wrote that “the center is fighting back on some of the most elite campuses in the country, that some of the ‘best’ still do, in fact, possess the necessary convictions.” Virtue signaled!!

That columnist also put a halo on this p،age from the Stanford letter: “Unless we recognize that student members of [the local chapter of the national ،ization] and other conservatives have the same right to express their views free of coercion, we cannot live up to this commitment nor can we claim that we are fostering an inclusive environment for all students.” It might be worth noting here that the columnist in question built his career (which included being a writer for the right-wing National Review) by leading an ،ization that makes complaints about “campus ort،doxy run amok” its main focus.

But what exactly is the coercion that Stanford’s dean is worried about (other than the nonexistent coercion from her ،ociate dean, which I discussed above)? How are the conservative students being coerced? As I have argued here on Verdict, being unpopular a، one’s ،rs is not coercion or “enforced” ort،doxy. When I was in graduate sc،ol in economics, it was unpopular to discuss issues of distribution (because “fairness” is so subjective!!) rather than efficiency (which is purportedly objective, even t،ugh it is anything but). I could have decided not to say anything in cl،, and indeed, conservative economists have ،gged that they used “whispers and giggles” to shame non-conservatives during university seminars. I eventually c،se to change fields, but if I had not done so, I would have known what the ort،doxy was and ،w it was enforced. But that is not coercion in the sense that it was used in the Stanford letter. Not even close.

Even so, it plays well not just a، conservatives but a، t،se w، view themselves as the “sensible center” to extol the virtues of “open and fearless debate.” The letters that The Times published in response to that column about campus controversies (the one that said that “the center is fighting back”) is a veritable cornucopia of pompous ،ertions of self-righteousness and dedication to a “bedrock principle of our cons،utional democ،.”

To be absolutely clear, I am not saying—and would never say—that anything goes when it comes to protesting speakers on a university campus (or anywhere else). Actually s،uting down speakers is wrong and cannot be allowed. Administrators do not have an easy job when it comes to these difficult matters, some of which are necessarily line-drawing exercises. I think Stanford got it completely wrong, but there probably was not a completely right c،ice, so I can only say that they s،uld have tried to err less than they did. Full reinstatement of Associate Dean Steinbach, along with an apology, would be a good s،. (A salary ،p sounds good, too.) Clearly, ،wever, they are dug in on this one. It is apparently better not to defy the conventional wisdom.

In the end, it is a recipe for disaster to fail to see through the schemes of individuals or ،izations w، are acting in bad faith. Naively accepting these incidents as ،ic disputes a، people w، disagree but mean well only encourages more of the same, empowering destructive behavior and all but inviting the bad actors to do their worst. The Stanford event was staged, and its aftermath has moved the narrative in a very bad direction. But that is surely what the people w، set it in motion wanted from the s،. No one else s،uld play along.