Conservative activism at the University of Michigan

Sunday, November 1, 2020 - 4:31pm

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Alexis Rankin/Daily

In the fall of 2017, I stood nervously in front of the printers in Hatcher Graduate Library, observing the passersby and waiting for a hundred copies of full-sheet fliers to print out. Amo, Cole and I — the three founding members of the University of Michigan’s first free speech advocacy group, Michigan Open Discourse — had written and designed these fliers for distribution across campus. On them in big, bold, capitalized letters read, “LET SPENCER SPEAK,” in reference to self-described identitarian and white supremacist Richard Spencer. And, underneath this bold request, were bulleted points explaining why we believed that Richard Spencer should be given a platform to speak at the University. One of them read:

“Know thy enemy.”

Richard Spencer is a racist fraud, but one with influence. We should rationally confront and argue against his ideas in the open, not shield ourselves from them — not to mention that pushing Spencer away only validates the persecution complex of his impressionable followers, driving them deeper into radical and dangerous underground movements. Free expression, regardless of content, is fundamental to the purpose of a university setting, as affirmed by the bipartisan Supreme Court majority in the 1972 Supreme Court case, Healy v. James.

Cole and I continued waiting for the fliers to print. We both admitted to each other that we were slightly uncomfortable printing them in a public setting like the library, when they had such a contentious demand plastered across the face of the flier. Neither of us wanted to be associated with the fliers, even though we’d both endorsed their content, which was relatively mild and apolitical. 

Eventually, though, the hundred fliers were printed, and the three of us went to post them around campus. Even though we were posting them up around 10 o’clock at night, when basically no one was walking around campus, we only managed to post a grand total of nine fliers, mostly out of fear of being spotted and associated with their messaging. We had seen how most students on campus reacted to Spencer’s impending visit.

Spencer’s rumored visit to the University’s campus sparked widespread outcry among the student body: Controversially, some individuals posted “It’s okay to be white” fliers at campus buildings, while others started a change.org petition advocating that the University deny Spencer’s request to speak on campus. The Michigan Daily even published a strong editorial disavowing Spencer and his views and decrying the idea that he should be allowed to speak on campus. 

Amo, Cole, and I believed Spencer should have been allowed to speak, because though his ideas are abhorrent and unintellectual, we felt that he should be confronted and dismantled in a public setting — like a university, where he would be subject to rigorous questioning from a skeptical audience. And we further wanted to affirm his right to free speech and expression while countering his bigoted arguments. This was the motivation behind the designing of these fliers, and it was our first initiative through our organization Michigan Open Discourse. 

Expectedly, all the fliers were torn down by the next morning. This is not characteristic of conservative activism, but it is certainly not an uncommon experience to be facing certain barriers. Examples of this include widespread social disapproval, as is the case on the predominantly liberal U-M campus, to promulgating conservative ideas. Often, conservatives are mistreated, unjustly maligned or have to face significant repercussions for simply espousing viewpoints that don’t align with the prevailing liberal orthodoxy. 

In 2014, U-M student Omar Mahmood wrote a satirical column for The Michigan Review titled “Do the Left Thing” mocking politically correct attitudes among college students. In response, his residence hall room was egged, he received threats from fellow students and he was let go from his columnist position at The Michigan Daily.

A liberal activist who wrote a controversial satirical column would not have experienced the same type of pushback from fellow students. There aren’t as many barriers for a left-leaning individual to espouse their viewpoints on college campuses, especially at a University that has more liberal-identifying students.

It’s clearly not uncommon to be mistreated or judged for having divergent viewpoints or for taking a relatively radical stance like a conservative one, but it is common to face greater scrutiny in order to enact conservative changes. 

I spoke with Deion Kathawa, a former U-M student and former editor in chief of the independent, conservative newspaper on campus, The Michigan Review, to understand his experience as a conservative activist. Beside his extensive set of written clips for The Michigan Review, Kathawa’s most important initiative as a conservative activist was proposing a resolution to the Central Student Government to do the following things: affirm the commitment to freedom of speech outlined in the First Amendment and the University’s student code, commit to “non-obstructionism” with respect to campus events that involve controversial figures, adopt a similar set of free speech guidelines that the University of Chicago adopted and commit to including diversity of viewpoint in the University’s diversity initiatives.

“I felt that officials in the University were not specifically committed to protecting the speech of other students at this University, so I decided that I wanted to do something outside of rhetorical advocacy,” Kathawa said. “I opted for something in the official channels. … I went, I proposed it, there was some parliamentary chicanery that pushed it back a couple weeks. Eventually I got to say my piece, people voted for it. It lost pretty handily, 27-3.”

It’s telling that Kathawa’s idea, which was simply to affirm the right to freedom of speech in a number of ways and include diversity of viewpoint in the University of Michigan’s diversity codes and hiring processes, was shot down by committee members by such a significant margin. Not that there is necessarily inherent bias within these systems constructed by students against conservative activism, but there are certainly barriers preventing conservatives from achieving activism victories — the students and channels through which they have to operate through are, naturally, more left-leaning.

In rare instances, conservatives do achieve activism victories, though these are long processes and require undertaking difficult procedural manipulations. I spoke with Amo, one of my fellow co-founders of Michigan Open Discourse, to highlight such victories. Amo is not exactly conservative, but he has right-leaning views.

Amo served as a plaintiff on the recent Speech First v. Schlissel legislation. This was a court case, filed by Speech First, a free speech advocacy group, who was arguing on behalf of several students who’d been identified by the U-M Bias Response Team as violators of its code of conduct, meaning they had promulgated some type of offensive speech, in the context of harassing and bullying, and were reported for it. 

“A representative from Speech First reached out to me and Cole and asked us because we were at The Review,” Amo said. “She thought that maybe we would have some expertise … my angle on it was that I had experience with a bad speech climate at Michigan, and I had witnessed conservatives being mistreated. I knew that people didn’t want their real names officially associated with the paper.” 

Amo mentioned that this feeling extended beyond his work at The Review.

 “I just felt that in my classes there was a left-wing bias, and I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable voicing my opinions that were divergent,” he said.

The Speech First v. Schlissel court case was settled, resulting in a victory for Speech First, and the disbanding of the U-M Bias Response Team (which would later be replaced with the Campus Climate Support). The exact contention in the court case was not over the University’s policy to reprimand individuals for acts of bullying and harassment, but rather over their definitions of these terms that infringed upon protected speech. This court case demonstrates that, even though Speech First won the case, there are systematic barriers in place that create a campus environment that is unfriendly to free speech and conservative ideas. Evidence of this attitude within the University administration includes a U-M-sponsored “Bias Response Team,” which works to create a campus climate harmful to the right to free speech.

I also spoke with professor of Afroamerican and African Studies Angela Dillard about conservatives, faculty perceptions of conservatives and activism among conservatives. The crux of our conversation was a sentiment we both agreed with: 

“I think it’s odd to use the term minority group (to describe conservative students on campus),” Dillard said. “I mean they certainly are numerically, statistically a smaller population of students who self-identify as conservatives on campus than who would self-identify as liberals … (but) it’s a kind of political and ideological claim in and of itself to call conservatives a minority group.” 

Dillard added that while it may not be appropriate to define conservatives on campus as a “minority group,” she acknowledged the odd positioning these students have within the campus culture.

“They might not be a minority group, but I think that sense of being outnumbered is underappreciated or maybe that feeling of being marginalized, I think that matters a lot,” Dillard said.

Conservatives are outnumbered significantly on college campuses, not only among the student population but also among professors by a ratio of almost 5:1. There’s widespread debate about the effect that this disparity in faculty political leanings has on the quality of higher education, but one thing is clear: There is an overwhelming liberal bias in nearly all facets of university departments, even at the University of Michigan. This causes conservatives to feel disenfranchised, inhibited in their right to speak openly in classes and relatively uncelebrated in the context of intellectual diversity on campus. If diversity is so valuable to institutions of higher education, as evinced by the University of Michigan’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative, why isn’t there a greater appreciation for the value of intellectual conservatism in the context of college classrooms, student government and activism?

Reflecting on that night posting the fliers with Amo and Cole, I think that conservative activism needn’t be some type of under-the-radar activity that one should not want to be associated with — a feeling that we experienced while posting up the Richard Spencer fliers. I think, and wish, that conservative activism was valued more on college campuses, so that fliers like the ones we posted don’t get torn down, and so that ideas that are core to conservative thought, like the idea to protect freedom of speech, aren’t maligned as some veiled endorsement of the speech of someone like Richard Spencer. This way, I believe, there can be true diversity of viewpoints, the exposure to which is a fundamental component of any university education.