04 JULY 2021
Untitled, Watercolor, 12" x 15", Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust (Watercolor Honor Society)**
The GOP’s post-policy, intellectual bankruptcy is on full display. Having abandoned its values, conservative and otherwise, the party is incapable of developing a morally robust, meaningful platform to govern, and to keep and attract members. They can’t win the popular vote in a national election. Solution? Cheat the vote.
Another weapon in their arsenal is to skew the curriculum by chilling content and viewpoints at public colleges and universities that, Republican leaders fear, threaten their ability to maintain power in states where they hold it. Statistically, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and others recognize, voters with a bachelor’s degree vote at a much higher rate than voters whose highest academic achievement is some college or a high school diploma. That would be fine if, statistically, they voted Republican, but at least for now they don’t. Equally troubling to the GOP, therefore, is that college-educated voters have been leaving the GOP in droves and voting for more progressive agendas. That is a substantial shift from the early 2000s.
Finding it impractical to eliminate higher education altogether, DeSantis and others, instead, want to control the curriculum. They are doing so at the elementary and secondary levels by banning Critical Race Theory. As of July 1, public universities in Florida must conduct a survey developed by the State Board of Education to assess “viewpoint diversity.” DeSantis intimated the state may withhold funding from universities that don’t meet the Board’s specifications.
The claim is that colleges and universities are bastions of liberalism, churning out graduates who are “intellectually indoctrinated” with progressive ideas and agendas. If you ask him, DeSantis simply wants to assure parents who send their kids away to college that public institutions of higher learning in Florida offer only a fair and balanced education (as he defines it), and their children will not become “intellectually indoctrinated” (by the left).
Public universities are required to abide by the First Amendment. The threat of withholding funding chills speech and skews content. If colleges act or react out of fear of losing funding, government actors will make decisions that are not neutral under the Constitution, thereby engaging in content or viewpoint discrimination in clear violation of the First Amendment. The probable chilling effect caused by the threat likely gives university trustees immediate standing to challenge the law and the Board’s survey on First Amendment grounds. Students may also have standing.
The sounder argument is that people who choose to advance their education as adults become fully capable of making their own informed decisions in the vast marketplace of ideas and, at least for now, people with college degrees find progressive agendas more appealing. That could quickly change. Suggesting they are “intellectually indoctrinated” because of the informed choices they make really means ignorance, at least for them, is no longer bliss. As one college professor said to me, the very idea of education means “you can’t go back to Eden.” Finding distasteful the platformless GOP’s inability and unwillingness to govern is, to a majority of them, common sense.
If and to the extent any public university fails to maintain a posture of content neutrality, the institution should be held to account, but the means to do so already exists in the law. The First Amendment prohibits the government from tipping the scales.
If a public institution of higher learning that fosters academic freedom chooses to accommodate student organizations, for example, it must remain neutral in providing those speakers the organizations invite (and their respective viewpoints) a safe but open forum. Remember the bruhaha at Berkley with Ann Coulter? Two campus groups invited her to speak at the University, the Young America’s Foundation and the University’s Young Republicans. The University canceled the speech based on a claim of “very specific intelligence” that Coulter might be in “grave danger.” The University was (properly) pressured into changing its position, offering to allow Coulter to speak at a time when fewer students would be around to hear her. The student groups threatened to sue, claiming the time, place and manner restrictions on her speech violated fundamental constitutional principles. They had a point.
The “intelligence” included threats by leftist activists who were threatening to block Coulter from speaking at the University, whatever it takes. In one of the most anti-First Amendment rants I have heard in recent times, one Berkeley graduate who organized By Any Means Necessary, a national group involved in previous demonstrations that turned violent, said: “Our basic thing is to send a loud and clear message that this is not acceptable on our campus. . . . We will not tolerate anti-immigrant bigotry or bigotry of any kind, which is the only thing she’s here to do.” Of course, this anti-First Amendment rant is protected speech, the same as flag burning or kneeling during the National Anthem, so long as it does not create an imminent threat of violence or incite people to certain illegal activity, or does not constitute a true threat to others’ safety.
You may recall, on March 21, 2019, Trump signed Executive Order on Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities. The rhetoric surrounding the Order differed somewhat from its contents: “Today we’re delivering a clear message to the professors and power structures trying to suppress dissent and keep young Americans — and all Americans, not just young Americans . . . from challenging rigid, far-left ideology. If the university doesn’t allow you to speak, we will not give them money — it’s very simple.”
The Order itself, in obvious redundancy, simply instructed public universities to abide by the First Amendment.
In response to the Order (or the surrounding rhetoric), a conservative lawmaker said: “I don’t want to see Congress or the president or the department of anything creating speech codes to define what you can say on campus. The U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech. Federal courts define and enforce it. The Department of Justice can weigh in. Conservatives don’t like it when judges try to write laws, and conservatives should not like it when legislators and agencies try to rewrite the Constitution.” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Indeed, the director of free speech initiatives at the conservative Charles Koch Institute said: “We are concerned that wrongly framing censorship as an ideological issue works against efforts to foster open intellectual environments on campus. The best policies are those that empower the academy to uphold its core ideals of academic independence and free inquiry.”
Even our newly sainted former Supreme Court Justice Scalia defended the First Amendment’s role in protecting speech some politicians find unpopular (popular speech does not face government oppression):
“The first axiom of the First Amendment is this: As a general rule, the state has no power to ban speech on the basis of its content.”
“The point of the First Amendment is that majority preferences must be expressed in some fashion other than silencing speech on the basis of its content.”
Another solution in search of a problem, just like voter restriction laws.
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com. Rob’s second novel, a beautifully written suspense drama that takes place in Utah, Wyoming, and Norway, dropped on November17, 2020. Available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple Bookstore and your favorite local bookshop, this novel, The Contortionists, which Rob himself narrates for the audio version, is a psychological page-turner about a missing child in a predominantly Mormon community. I have read the novel and listened to the audio version twice. It is a literary masterpiece. The Contortionists, however, is not for the faint of heart.
**Richard J Van Wagoner is my father. His list of honors, awards and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in many traveling shows domestically and internationally. My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father’s work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his artwork. The photographs of my father’s art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com are hers