Op-ed: A professor responds to Fox News reporter's invitation to speak about campus free-speech bill

Wednesday, July 5, 2017 - 6:51pm

Dear Mr. Carlson,

I had not heard of you prior to the “Tucker Carlson Interview Request” I received to my work account last weekend (forgive me, Fox News wasn’t ever really my thing).

And then I looked you up a bit. And read about you. And watched some of your videos. I reread the email:

We’re looking to discuss the free speech bill that was proposed in Wisconsin, which aims to protect the first amendment on college campuses in the state. I read that you find the law ironic, and it would be great to hear more of your perspective about why you’re opposed to this bill. It was obvious to me that your producer read my contribution to Inside Higher Education where — I thought — I had made my stance clear. 

I am happy, however, to unpack more of my thinking, here, in a space where I control the narrative, uninterrupted and unedited, as I do not have an interest in theatrics. I will first focus my perspective on your team’s use of the word “protect.”

It is clear that you agree with what lawmakers in Wisconsin and elsewhere are attempting to achieve: politically neutral college campuses in the name of “protecting” free speech. Campuses where all speech is considered equally valuable, no matter how morally repugnant (see “The Bell Curve”), no matter how intellectually empty (see also “The Bell Curve”), no matter how culturally toxic (see, again, “The Bell Curve”) and no matter how psychologically dangerous (see, absolutely, “The Bell Curve”).

I highlight “The Bell Curve,” here, as it is one of the more recent examples out of Wisconsin — and is a form of speech that gloms onto the belief that white men are morally, intellectually, and psychologically superior to anyone not white and male.

This is just one example of the kind of speech that our white, male-dominated Wisconsin legislature wishes to see protected by way of illegalizing even the mildest of opposition (and as though there are not already mechanisms in place to deal with that which is actually illegal activity — such as violent protest).

That being said, what if “The Bell Curve” argued the exact opposite — that white men are scientifically proven to be morally, intellectually and psychologically inferior to non-white, non-male counterparts? Moreover, would you stand quite as stoically — as silently — behind campus speech that wishes to highlight the radicalization of young white men? What about speech equating whites and white supremacy with terrorism? To what extent would you stand by idly, as your identity is marginalized, minoritized, threatened and called into question by people who claim to know better, as has historically been the case for people of color and marginalized populations? If you wish to see this bill in Wisconsin come to fruition as written, then I invite you — in the name of consistency — to quietly abandon the very forum upon which you rail against social change and progress on a nightly basis.

Because my background and expertise is in literacy education, Mr. Carlson, I am going to draw from this field to argue the following:

There is no such thing as a politically neutral campus. No speech is neutral, no message free of ideology and power-relations. To speak at a college campus or educational institution is to encourage thought in one direction or another. To illegalize protest and campus activism in the name of neutrality is also a political stance — a politics of silencing. Moreover, it is to delude the public into believing that a depoliticized campus is possible when “forced” to become one by law: an exercise deeply dependent upon civic illiteracy.

In sum, when you have values — whether you are a talk show host, lawmaker, campus visitor, student or college administrator — you have politics.

To conclude, I wish to address the irony embedded in your stance:

You support Wisconsin’s attempts to “protect” free speech at the same time lawmakers have eliminated tenure protections for educators and researchers across the state, thereby threatening intellectual and academic freedoms — again, the sorts of freedoms I presume you wish to see “protected” (despite, I should point out, your stated stance against tenure and intellectual protections).

If you want so badly to see speech “protected,” can I count on you, Mr. Carlson, to stand beside me when my academic and public articles about white privilege and white supremacy fall into the wrong hands, thereby resulting in threats to my livelihood and well-being? Will you stand with me, Mr. Carlson, should Wisconsin’s Board of Regents make decisions about my future — decisions not in my favor — if and when they disagree with my research and teaching about whiteness and white supremacy — an objectively large and growing field of study dating as far back as the beginning of the 20th century?

Will you pull for me, Mr. Carlson, when groups like Professor Watchlist and The College Fix publish something about me and my work, in an unveiled attempt to harm my career? Am I being cynical as I presume to know the answers to these questions?

Make absolutely no mistake: to claim neutrality is a political act; to force neutrality is a political act; to illegalize protest is a political act. To silence opposition is a political act. To support campus speech while railing against tenure protections is an exercise in hypocrisy, at best.

I am not sure that it’s “free speech” you purport to want to protect as much as you wish to protect perspectives that have only ever advantaged you and many of your followers at the expense of social progress. Rather than hide behind a thinly veiled commitment to free speech, you might ask yourself: Which speech do I want protected on college campuses and at whose expense? Whose speech do I want protected and at what social cost?

Finally, it is out of reverence and love for social progress, education and my institution that I respectfully declined submitting myself as your punching bag. But perhaps I’ll be up for it next time, if and when tenure and intellectual freedom are reinstated in the state of Wisconsin, and if and when you come to terms with the reality that you cannot support one without supporting the other.

Christina Berchini is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. A native New Yorker from Brooklyn, she received her Ph.D. in curriculum, instruction and teacher education from Michigan State University. Her research on race won the 2016 Distinguished Dissertation in Teacher Education Award from the Association of Teacher Educators. Her writing on race has been published extensively in both academic journals and mainstream outlets. Her scholarship centers on Critical Whiteness Studies and has appeared in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, English Education, The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy and other scholarly venues.