411 Movies Interview: Evan Coyne Maloney of Indoctrinate U

July 24, 2007

Filmmaker Evan Coyne Maloney was recently interviewed by 411’s Ryan Latimer to discuss his new documentary Indoctrinate U, which studies what Maloney feels is the suppression of free speech on American college campuses along with a lack of political diversity and tolerance. The film currently has no set release date for the public.

From Indoctrinate U’s official website (link):

“Speech codes. Censorship. Enforced political conformity. Hostility to diversity of opinion. Sensitivity training. We usually associate such things with the worst excesses of fascism and communism, not with the American universities that nurtured the free speech movement. But American higher education bears a disturbing resemblance to the totalitarian societies that are anathema to our nation’s ideal of liberty. Evan Coyne Maloney’s documentary film, Indoctrinate U, reveals the breathtaking institutional intolerance you won’t read about in the glossy marketing brochures of Harvard, Berkeley, Michigan, Yale, and hundreds of other American colleges and universities.

“Hailed by the New York Sun as one of ‘America’s most promising’ documentary filmmakers, Maloney has assembled a scorching indictment of higher education in America today, one that should make students, parents, trustees, lawmakers, and concerned citizens sit up and take notice. The London Telegraph has called the long-awaited feature-length film ‘as slick and incisive as anything by Michael Moore.’

“Maloney spent two years traveling to campuses across the country, interviewing students, professors, and administrators to find out what life on campus is really like. Instead of the vibrant debate, intellectual diversity, and academic freedom we like to associate with universities, Maloney found violent protests at UC Santa Cruz and San Francisco State, persecution of student members of a conservative club at Cal Poly and the University of Tennessee, divisive racial and ethnic politics at the University of Michigan and Yale, doctrinaire teaching at Duke and Columbia, and much more.”

411: I appreciate the time you taking the time to speak with us today, Mr. Maloney. What inspired you to make a documentary focusing on this particular issue?

Evan Coyne Maloney: Thanks a lot for the opportunity!

I first became aware of the stifling intellectual environment on college campuses during my undergraduate years at Bucknell. From the first day of orientation on, the notions of “tolerance” and “diversity” were drilled into our heads as being the most important values for students to hold. Yet, hypocritically, I saw that there was very little tolerance of intellectual diversity on campus.

I was involved in publishing a political opinion paper. The views expressed in the paper were certainly within the mainstream of American political thought, yet entire stacks of the paper were routinely picked up and deposited in dumpsters and trash bins. This didn’t seem to be happening to other political papers on campus, because those papers echoed the views that were popular among those who agreed with the professors and administrators.

It was pretty clear that the school had created an environment where some views were welcome and some were not. And if you didn’t adhere to the prevailing orthodoxy, your views would be suppressed. To me, this was antithetical to the very purpose of higher education. Academia is supposed to be the one place in society where people could debate ideas freely. But that wasn’t happening. There was a favored set of views, and you were expected to adopt them.

Many books and magazine articles have been written on the topic, but I wanted audiences to hear from people directly. Lots of people have had their academic careers ruined simply because their ideas differ from what dominates on campus. To hear from these people directly has an immediacy and emotional impact that can’t be matched in print.

This is a documentary that should have been made long ago. But because it is apparently not a topic that interested more established documentarians, the job was left to me.

411: You mentioned that the school “had created an environment where some views were not welcome.” Were there any other specific or glowing instances of what you saw as bias or stifling of viewpoints, be it from administration or professors? Also, for clarification, were your political papers being discarded because there was no interest?

ECM: Once I wrote an editorial for the school paper where I quoted Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and argued that he would have opposed racial preferences. He wanted people to be judged not by the color of their skin, but by how they acted as individuals. Because I made this argument, I received two death threats by campus mail. Although I did believe my life was in danger, I still thought it would be wise to turn them over to the campus security office, which I did. But there was no follow-up at all on the part of the University. They tacitly condoned it, I guess.

As for the clarification, the papers were clearly being discarded because of the views they contained. All the campus papers were distributed in the same fashion: they were left in stacks at various locations around campus, and they were left there for about a week before being cleaned up or replaced. But within hours of putting out our paper, we noticed that entire stacks were missing from those distribution points. And on a several occasions, I spotted those stacks in trash bins and dumpsters. If there was no interest, the stacks would have just stayed there, and they would have been cleaned up days later. Instead, ours disappeared almost immediately. And it was obvious that our paper was targeted, because the other papers–distributed just feet from ours–were left alone. To my knowledge, during my entire four years at Bucknell, no other papers were trashed in this way.

411: How would you categorize yourself politically? Is this a “conservative” film?

ECM: All political labels are inaccurate to a certain degree, but I would describe myself as a libertarian. I favor limited government, minimal taxation, free markets, and a strong defense. I am what some call a classical liberal.

As for Indoctrinate U, it is definitely a film that presents my own view of academia, but that view is informed by a number of verifiable facts. The evidence we present in the film is publicly available for all to see.

And I think regardless of whether someone agrees with my own personal political philosophy, they can agree with the premise of the film: that free speech and free thought are important ideals and should be respected on campus. You can’t have a true marketplace of the mind—which is what higher education is supposed to be—if expressing certain views can lead to your academic career being ruined.

Free speech and free thought are not partisan values. They are American values.

411: Considering this is a documentary, what are your thoughts in regards to the current state of documentary films with the rise to stardom of filmmakers such as Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald, who have been accused in the past of being one-sided or sensational with their films? Do you consider Indoctrinate U to be a “fair” documentary?

ECM: I don’t have a problem with Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald putting out one-sided documentaries. They are partisans, and they are open about it. Because they tell us where they stand, we have the ability to judge what they say in light of knowing where they’re coming from.

That’s just a reflection of a changing media environment. I think people recognize that the old media notion of “objectivity” isn’t really possible. For years, the old media has been telling us they’re objective, and time and time again, evidence comes out that proves that they’re not. Every person has his or her own way of looking at the world, and that perspective will shape how they see the world and how they describe what they see to others.

I think it is more honest to admit that you have opinions than it is to pretend that you don’t. I’ll trust someone who tells me where they’re coming from much sooner than I will someone who says, “I’m a journalist, I’m objective, and bias never enters into my reporting.” It just isn’t possible. Besides, if someone spends years working on a documentary film and has absolutely no opinions on the topic they’re covering, they’re either lying or brain dead.

Of course, one can still present their own views while being fair. If the facts of a film are correct, if there’s no deliberate attempt to deceive, if important details are not left out to try to sway the viewer away from the truth, then I think a film can be fair while still presenting a particular point of view.

That’s how I see Indoctrinate U. I have a particular view of academia, but that view is informed by an awful lot of evidence. I present that evidence along with my view in the film. People may look at the evidence I present and still come to a different conclusion than I have. Is that fair? To me it is, because by being up front about my opinions, I’m disclosing my own personal biases to the viewer. And the viewer can evaluate what I say in light of that.

411: One of the elements Indoctrinate U tackles is speech codes, regulations that limits or restricts certain speech beyond the strict legal limitations upon freedom of speech or press. Base on your own experiences and research, how prevalent are such codes and how are they being implemented?

ECM: Speech codes are quite prevalent. Most colleges and universities seem to have them.

The group that’s done the most research in this area is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. They rate the amount of speech freedom at schools and assign them a red light, yellow light, or green light rating.

At a green light school, there is no regulatory impediment to free speech. Students and professors are afforded full First Amendment rights. According to the law, every public university must be in the green light category. And in some states, private institutions are required to ensure full First Amendment rights as well. But what the law says is not necessarily the same as what actually happens.

Yellow light schools impose some regulation that could be reasonably construed to restrict speech. Schools end up in this category if they have ambiguously worded policies that don’t explicitly restrict speech, but that could easily be abused by administrators seeking to impose speech restrictions. Students at these schools should be careful what they say. Red light schools are the most restrictive. They have policies on the books that explicitly restrict speech. If you are a student at a red light school, you can be punished simply for expressing “wrong” ideas. Of course, the danger is who decides what’s wrong? Administrators. So you could get in trouble, for example, by contradicting the political opinions of these administrators.

FIRE surveyed over 330 schools around the country of all different types: big state schools, small private colleges, Ivy League institutions and community colleges alike. What FIRE found is astonishing. Most schools are either red light or yellow light. And it isn’t a small percentage. Over 96% of schools restricted speech. 68% were right light. Think about that for a minute: nearly three-quarters of all the schools surveyed had severely restrictive speech codes. And on top of that, another 27% were yellow light schools, where speech could be restricted at an administrator’s whim.

Now, in my research, I found that these speech codes can be applied in any number of ways. Sometimes, they punish speech that isn’t outright political, but merely “politically incorrect.” But often they do result in political speech being punished. Of course, the type of speech that gets punished is the type of speech that administrators don’t like. So if university officials as a group tend to lean one way or another politically, then naturally the speech that runs counter to their political views will be the speech that gets punished. Speech on one side of the political spectrum becomes stifled disproportionately.

And what I’ve found is that expressing support for the United States, opposing racial preferences, wanting to enforce our nation’s borders, and even speaking out against terrorist organizations—to name a few issues—have resulted in real people being brought up on charges, threatened with psychological counseling, arrest or expulsion, and even being physically assaulted.

If you have the wrong set of views, academia can be a very hostile place.

411: Do you think we should even have such things as speech codes for public universities?

ECM: Speech codes at public universities are illegal, pure and simple. The First Amendment is the law of the land on a public campus. The existence of any university regulation that imposes restrictions beyond what the First Amendment would otherwise allow is grounds for a lawsuit.

411: All things considered and discussed, how and why do you think American academia has come to be what you have described?

ECM: I think it stemmed from a rather complex set of developments that occurred over decades. Some would say it goes back as far as the Frankfurt School in the early 1900s, and that it represents an ideological desire to engage in “the long march through the institutions.” Certainly, if we look at it today, it appears that in academia, the long march has succeeded. The ideology of the Frankfurt School now seems to be the default position among academics.

But even though the roots of the movement may go back that far, it really was in the late 1960s when today’s crop of academics became politically active. Anti-war activists in the late 1960s ran the risk of getting drafted for Vietnam. And because they opposed that war, they naturally wanted to stay out of the fighting. So a lot of them worked around the draft by going into academic programs that would allow them to avoid the war. And finding an environment that they found friendly to their views, they stayed. And their presence served as an advertisement to like-minded people who may not have wanted to go work for “the man” in the private sector. This attracted more fellow travelers into academia.

By the late 1970s, there was enough of a critical mass of ideologically-driven academics that they began to amass power within academic institutions. By controlling hiring committees, they were able to ensure that their colleagues were as “ideologically pure” as they were. And by attaining power within school administrations, they were able to institute policies such as speech codes that tried to ensure that same ideological purity from their students.

By the mid-1980s, we started seeing political correctness dictate the intellectual environment on campuses, and people started facing academic retribution for saying things that were “incorrect” and for thinking things that ran counter to the dominant thinking. Groupthink set in, and the group became more extreme in the conformity that it demanded from people. The abuses became more extreme and more public.

In the early 1990s, we saw the first prominent case of speech control that was widely covered in the national press: the “water buffalo” incident at the University of Pennsylvania. Since then, it’s been a constant battle between advocates of free speech and those who want to impose ideological conformity. Just about every time these cases make it into court, the foes of free speech lose big. But the cases keep happening because few students and professors have the time, inclination or stomach to fight for their rights. And a number of them back down, their cases never making it beyond the campus borders. So the violators are rarely challenged, they feel like they can get away with it, and they keep doing it.

It would take years to study the precise historical causes that drove academia to where it is today. But it remains where it is today because too few people understand that it is possible to fight for their free speech rights—and win.

If people recognized that they do have these rights—and that they can successfully fight to preserve them—in ten years, academia may not look like it does today. Of course, we’d hope that the many decent folks in academia would insist that their peers return some basic level of decency and afford those who think differently enough respect to allow them to speak their minds without fear of punishment. After all, people shouldn’t have to constantly struggle to utilize rights that are already afforded to them by law.

 It is quite sad that we ended up where we are today, because the same generation that brought the Free Speech Movement to Berkeley and beyond in the late 1960s is the one now running campuses. It raises the question: have they all turned their backs on free speech, now that it is not their speech being suppressed?

 411: What would be your advice to those who may feel the same way you do? Can change truly be made?

ECM: Change can always be made. The only constant throughout the course of human history is change.