Right-Wing Media Jumps on Free Speech Controversy. Again.

By SARAH ASCH

This headline ran in an article from The American Conservative.

In the wake of the canceled lecture by — and protest of — Ryszard Legutko last week, conservative and mainstream media outlets alike took a renewed interest in free speech at Middlebury. While some journalists wrote articles that explored nuanced perspectives about what happened, many right-wing outlets spun the issue into another on-campus meltdown over a controversial speaker. 

Right-leaning website The College Fix, for example, insinuated that the protesters may have been responsible for the safety risk — administrators have since clarified that protesters did not cause the unspecified “safety concern” that caused the cancelation. The writer also drew a direct connection between this protest and the Charles Murray protest two years ago, characterizing both as violent and mob-like. 

The College Fix article described the student protesters as being in “a fevered pitch of outrage” and suggested that the protest would include a “shuttling-in of protest participants.”

An article in The American Conservative went as far as to declare in its headline “Middlebury is No Longer a College,” and went on to criticize the “left-wing mobs” that the writer claims rule campus. 

While many right-leaning outlets were openly critical of the planned protest and its organizers, others, such as Reason, a libertarian magazine, focused their criticism on the administration for canceling the talk, rather than on the protesters. 

Reason magazine criticized the decision to shut down Legutko’s talk, given that the protest was expected to be non-disruptive.

“Preemptively shutting down difficult conversations out of an abundance of caution is really no different from shutting them down due to mob pressure,” the article read, arguing that both the talk and the protest should have occurred as scheduled. 

Taite Shomo ’20.5, one of the protest organizers, said that reading through press coverage of the event has been a disheartening experience. 

“There are a few articles that are more generous to student organizers, and those are diamonds in the rough, but the seemingly enormous amount of negative coverage is disheartening and overwhelming to me,” she said. “This warped story has been very frustrating and difficult to deal with, especially considering how much time and effort and energy I personally put into the planning process and the effort to make the protest something that Middlebury students and faculty could be proud of.”

Shomo reiterated that, despite the negative coverage suggesting otherwise, the protest was going to be peaceful and non-disruptive. 

“We were never violent, we never planned to be violent and we never planned to prevent Legutko from speaking,” she said. “Our goal was to educate the community about Legutko’s views, and then to celebrate our marginalized identities together as a community.”

Conservative media outlets often pay special attention to free speech issues on college campuses. Paul Johnson, an assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh who studies rhetoric and American politics, said that conservative media outlets have both an ideological and economic incentive to cover free speech issues the way that they do.  

“The idea that elite, liberal institutions — and in these stories, there’s a disproportionate focus on elite institutions like Yale, Harvard, Middlebury, Oberlin — are generally intolerant of conservatism offers one pathway for conservatives and right-wingers to burnish their populist credibility,” he said.

Johnson explained that this positioning helps provide the conservative movement with a certain kind of ideological unity.

“Patting yourself on the back for being more tolerant than a bunch of campus leftists — or, to go further, imagining that you’re quite tolerant and they are the hypocrites — does a lot of important cognitive work for the movement,” he said. “Information consumers can go from campus outrage to campus outrage without stopping to think about what one’s own investments are.”

Financially, he said that right-wing news organizations like Breitbart and Campus Reform want to write articles about free speech issues because they generate clicks.

“They have an audience hovering their mouse arrow over various social media feeds waiting to hear about the most recent campus excesses,” he said.

For readers that want to engage such coverage critically, Johnson said that one red flag to look out for is when a reporter uses the phrase “free speech” frequently in an article without providing a clear definition of the term. 

“When pundits or outlets talk about ‘free speech’ as an absolute social value, it really stands in for a demand that they think people should be able to say anything they want. That, of course, could be the basis for its own kind of anarchistic, violent society, but it is in no way the basis for anything resembling a shared, democratic life,” he said. “Our social structure is not built on the idea that all ideas have an equal right to be expressed.” 

Johnson added that another bad sign is when an article is short, which probably indicates that it is not delving into the full nuance of the issue. 

“Deliberations over bringing speakers to campus are complicated, different campuses have different rules and regulations, and so it’s almost never cut and dry,” he said. 

The impact of these news stories is often felt by student protesters and vulnerable student groups. Shomo, who has received a lot of online exposure in the coverage of the event, said that she did not expect this event to receive such widespread media attention. Many of the articles quote Shomo’s posts in the Facebook event for the protest, which were taken without her knowledge. 

“I take ownership of the fact that I made the Facebook event and posted on it, thus putting my name out into the world, but I also really never thought it would blow up as much as it did,” she said.

Shomo said that, although she feels her quotes have been used accurately for the most part, she is uncomfortable with the level of online exposure she has received. She recently decided to change her name on Facebook after a stranger tagged her in a post about the incident and an account that appeared to belong to a Polish scientist tried to add her as a friend.  

Shomo believes, especially with an issue as divisive as this one, that right-wing press coverage that demonizes protest only contributes to the frustration and the divide. 

“I think that no matter what I or the other organizers or our supporters say, people will see what they want to see in this situation,” she said. “At the end of the day, I don’t think they’re interested in my side of the story.” 

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