KC Johnson Decries Politically Polarized Defense of Feds’ ‘Blueprint’

July 9, 2013

Microphone with reflection - ShutterstockIn a thorough Minding the Campus blog entry, Brooklyn College Professor KC Johnson takes recent defenders of the federal government’s “blueprint” to task for forsaking civil liberties in favor of taking political potshots.  Echoing points FIRE made in our own responses to last week’s blueprint defenses from ThinkProgress and New York Magazine, Johnson decries the zero-sum, “us vs. them” partisan mentality on display:  That an influential U.S. senator expressed concern about the OCR’s efforts–a rare event, indeed–might have led to more robust public condemnation of the administration’s years-long assault on campus due process. Instead, if anything, the reverse has occurred. Fairly high-profile left-of-center publications, apparently operating under the premise that the opponent of an ally must be my friend, have denounced McCain’s letter and leapt to OCR’s defense–as if campus speech codes are somehow a "liberal" value. This demonstration of political tribalism exemplifies why it’s so difficult to mobilize political input addressing the woes of higher education.  Johnson continues:  Simply because a prominent Republican senator criticizes an administrative initiative doesn’t mean that the only criticism of the proposal can come from "conservatives," or that liberals and Democrats must automatically defend the initiative, even if doing so requires either obscuring the initiative’s provisions or abandoning traditional liberal defenses of free speech and due process.  That’s correct. Free speech is not a partisan value, nor the sole province of just one end of the ideological spectrum. The beauty and utility of the First Amendment is found in its equal application to all citizens, regardless of viewpoint.  For an encouraging example of students recognizing this core principle, one need look no further than a blog entry posted yesterday here on The Torch, describing how pro-life students at the University of Alabama are joining in the protest against the school’s censorship of pro-choice students. It’s crucial to recognize—as these students have—that silencing one viewpoint impoverishes all debate and threatens all participants. While the blueprint’s defenders may reflexively assume that any threat to free speech criticized by a conservative senator requires a liberal defense, they fail to acknowledge that the blueprint’s threat to campus speech could easily silence speech they generally support and endorse. (I’ve made this point at length, but it bears repeating.)  I’d add one more point to Johnson’s critique of the media response to Senator John McCain’s letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. While the coverage we’ve seen thus far has taken a decidedly partisan bent, it’s worth noting the coverage that we haven’t seen. Specifically, the two most popular higher ed news sites—The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed—have declined to cover Senator McCain’s letter at all. Despite running lengthy news articles and commentary about the blueprint, both publications have been inexplicably silent about Senator McCain’s concerns. The lack of coverage is surprising; one would imagine that a powerful Senator’s letter of concern to the U.S. Attorney General about a high-profile settlement agreement labeled a “blueprint” for colleges and universities nationwide would be newsworthy, especially in these slow summer months. But I guess not.   Read Johnson’s observations in full over at Minding the Campus. Want to know more about the ED/DOJ "blueprint"?  Check out FIRE’s Frequently Asked Questions here!

Cases:  Departments of Education and Justice: National “Blueprint” for Unconstitutional Speech Codes