Right-Wing Money Promotes Model Legislation to Restrict Free Speech on University Campuses

Right-wing conservatives are using money and power to influence public policy to suppress student dissent on US college and university campuses. The right-wing Goldwater Institute, which is funded by conservatives including Charles Koch and the Mercer family, has proposed model legislation that seeks to quell student dissent in favor of guest speakers who attempt to discredit climate change, oppose LGBTQ rights, and espouse hate speech, Alex Kotch reported for AlterNet in March 2017.

The stated intent of the Goldwater Institute’s proposed “Campus Free Speech Act” is to “uphold free-speech principles” and to ensure “the fullest degree . . . of free expression”—but, Kotch reported, the model legislation does not consider protest or dissent to be free speech. In fact, the model legislation stated that “protests and demonstrations that infringe upon on the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity shall not be permitted and shall be subject to sanction.” Students found to have infringed on the expressive rights of others more than one time would be “suspended for a minimum of one year, or expelled,” according to the model legislation.

UnKoch My Campus is a campaign that seeks to “expose and expel undue donor influence” from institutions of higher education.62 Kotch’s AlterNet article quoted Ralph Wilson, a senior researcher with UnKoch My Campus: “These laws would create a chilling effect on students who reject the idea that white supremacists or climate deniers are simply representing an ‘opposing viewpoint’ that should be tolerated, and who are rightfully relying on their first amendment freedoms to stop the rise of fascism and prevent global climate catastrophe.”

The Goldwater Institute’s “Campus Free Speech Act” has been adapted in proposed legislation in many states. For example, states including Illinois, North Dakota, Virginia, and Tennessee have proposed bills that crack down on free speech with some elements of the model legislation. Additional states, including Colorado, Florida, and Utah, are also proposing so-called “campus free speech” bills.

The text of the proposed legislation was written by Stanley Kurtz, James Manley, and Jonathan Butcher. Kurtz is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank that applies “the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.” The Ethics and Public Policy Center, Kotch reported, has received “millions of dollars in donations” from the foundations of conservative families, as well as “hundreds of thousands” from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, which serve as vehicles for wealthy right-wing donors. Between 2006 and 2015, the two groups received more than $9 million in contributions from Charles and David Koch. The Goldwater Institute’s senior attorney, Manley, previously worked for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which also received significant donations from the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund. Butcher, the Institute’s education director, worked at the conservative Heritage Foundation—which has been heavily funded by the Kochs—from 2002 to 2006.