Koch Network’s Student Protest Ban disguised as “Campus Free Speech”

image credit: Polluterwatch.org

image credit: Polluterwatch.org

In the past month, state lawmakers across the country coordinated an effort to file “campus free speech” bills. These bills make it illegal for students to protest in a way that “disrupts” the speech of anyone who has been invited onto campus.

In a familiar twist, the free speech being protected is that of private donors and corporations, rather than students.

So far, bills have been filed (in some form) in CO, NC, VA, TN, ND, UT, IL, and WI, with FL possibly next. These bills have found bipartisan support, and very little resistance, sailing smoothly through committee after committee. In Utah and Colorado, the ACLU has come out in support of the bills.

Most appear unaware of the origins or expressed intent of this legislation. It is based on a model bill, the “Campus Free Speech Act,” developed by two organizations affiliated with the Koch network; the Goldwater Institute and the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

See the model bill language here.

Punishing Protesters for “interrupting”

Despite a provision that appears to protect protests and free speech, this bill actually bans protests. It is not a defense of free speech:

Any person lawfully present on campus may protest or demonstrate there. Such statement shall make clear that protests and demonstrations that infringe upon the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity shall not be permitted and shall be subject to sanction. (Section 1.4)

This would prohibit a plethora of protected expressive acts, for example, a chant, or a song that could be construed as infringing. The authors claim "[t]his means no more shouting down of visiting speakers, and no more obstruction of legitimate meetings and events." The model bill stipulates that student demonstrators "shall be subject to sanction." Not only would disruptive protestors be removed as they are now, they would face legal and academic sanctions:

the bill would authorize a range of disciplinary sanctions for those who interfere with the speech of others, with particularly strong penalties for anyone who commits a second offense.

On campuses that are already overly militarized, this bill calls for harsher policing of students protesters.

The “Milo Bill”

In another provision that more clearly demonstrates the intended effect of the bill, it would "prevent administrators from disinviting speakers, however controversial, whom members of the campus community wish to hear from."

The announcement of the model bill was released the morning that Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at UC Berkeley. Supporters of the Tennessee bill have called this the MILO bill, and even read a statement from Yiannopoulos at a press conference:

We are winning the war. And we will continue to win as long as students, and now defenders of free speech within the government, stand up to ivory tower intellectuals and left-wing administrators intent on shutting up any speech they don’t find convenient.

The authors of the model legislation describe how it is meant to eradicate campus safe spaces, citing how “trigger warnings” and “speaker disinvitations” are the reason that “the core constitutional value of free speech is now under siege.”

The authors characterize safe spaces as “idea-free zones staffed by thought police, where disagreement is prohibited,” while their bill literally exemplifies their own criticism.

The Money Trail

Milo was not a student, nor faculty at UC Berkeley. His talk was sponsored by David Horowitz's Freedom Center (in Los Angeles). Interestingly, there is a large overlap between the funders of the Freedom Center and the two groups who developed the model legislation; the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Goldwater Institute.

DonorsTrust/Donors Capital Fund

According to 990's, between 2002 and 2014, the Goldwater Institute received $2,357,112 from the Koch network’s DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, while the Ethics and Public Policy Center has received $873,000. The Freedom Center who sponsored Milo’s UC Berkeley talk received $628,000

Bradley Foundation

The second largest common donor involved was the Bradley foundation, which gave $25,000 to the Goldwater Institute, $7,964,210 to the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and $8,438,000 to Horowitz Freedom Center.

Koch Family Foundations

The Goldwater Institute received $75,000 from Koch family foundations (since 2004), while the Ethics and Public Policy Center has received $199,124 (since 1997).

Goldwater is also a member of the State Policy Network, and has received $149,349 from SPN, which itself has received $100,361 from Koch foundations since 1997.

Paid Speech vs. The First Amendment

The bill’s sponsors use a  flawed assessment where free speech is no longer a universal right, in direct contradiction to the U.S. Bill of Rights. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects our freedom of speech, as well as peaceful freedom of assembly:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Much like a campus version of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, these bills bend the definition of free speech to favor corporate funded speech (campus speakers sponsored by outside groups, or corporate funded student groups). Spontaneous protest will be pre-empted by sponsored speakers.

Texas A&M made it clear that white supremacist Richard Spencer was invited to campus by an anonymous private citizen, rather than by faculty or students:

To be clear, Texas A&M University – including faculty, staff, students and/or student groups - did not invite this speaker to our campus nor do we endorse his rhetoric in any way. In fact, our leadership finds his views as expressed to date in direct conflict with our core values.

Private citizens are permitted to reserve space available to the public as we are a public university as is the case here. Public groups must cover all rental expenses so that state resources are not burdened.

He was allowed to speak. Spencer’s publication Alternative Right has called for its readers to consider “black genocide” as a solution to conflict between Black people and White people.

Or in Vermont, at Middlebury College, where the political science department is standing by an invitation to Charles Murray, a white nationalist most well known for his book, The Bell Curve, which argues that the intelligence of white people is genetically superior to that of minorities. 

Murray, a favorite guest of Charles Koch's donor summits, was invited by a student group run by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). AEI, also a favorite of Koch's donor summits and Charles Murray's current employer, AEI has received over $1,807,999 from the Koch foundation, and $25,626,714 from DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund since 2002. 

Since the proliferation of these "Milo" bills, the conservatives behind them have been less than tolerant, ironically disinviting Milo from speaking at a recent meeting of CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee).  

Published March 1, 2017
Ralph Wilson


UPDATED 3/9/2017:

After speaking with the ACLU in Colorado, I learned that an amended version of the bill removed the controversial provision of legally punishing students for disrupting other speaking events. Here are the different versions of CO SB 17-062, the most recent of which was passed out of the House Committee on State, Veteran’s and Military affairs yesterday.

I have not heard back from the ACLU in Utah, but their support does NOT appear to have anything to do with the punishment provision, because that provision was not included in UT
HB54 as introduced, nor as currently amended.