Peter Certo: Don’t blame campus protesters for trying to have their say (2024)

I was a student in the late 2000s when I had my first brush with “cancel culture.” A campus group had invited Nick Griffin — a racist Holocaust denier and leader of a fascist British political party — to speak.

Peter Certo: Don’t blame campus protesters for trying to have their say (1)

Many shocked students, including me, called Griffin’s views vile and warned that violent extremists might come to support him. Eventually, the group rethought the invitation and canceled the event. Thank heavens.

No one’s speech had been denied. Others exercised their own.

Yet a few short years later, campus protests such as these became detested by right-wing politicians, who produced countless diatribes against “woke mobs” and the “free speech crisis” on campus. Then they launched a war on campus speech and beyond.

Protests have never been a threat to speech — it is free speech. What we’ve learned is that the real danger is inequality.

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Consider the recent campus protests against Israel’s war on Gaza and U.S. support for it.

Conservative politicians who’d thrown fits over free speech on campus cheered as police officers roughed up and arrested student protesters. Some even called to deploy the National Guard, which infamously murdered four Kent State students during the Vietnam era.

Meanwhile, billionaire CEOs such as Bill Ackman led campaigns to out students who’d participated in the protests and blacklist them from employment, according to CNN.

Cynically casting these often Jewish-led protests as antisemitic, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., hauled several university presidents before Congress to answer for why the protests hadn’t been shut down more brutally.

When University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill feebly defended the First Amendment, a $100 million donor complained, and Magill was compelled to resign. Under similar donor pressure, Harvard President Claudine Gay followed suit. And Stefanik? She raked in campaign cash.

Of course, high-end donors are also shaping what can and can’t be said inside the classroom.

Corporate and billionaire-backed groups have poured enormous sums into backing laws that ban books, restrict what history can and can’t be taught, and severely curtail classroom instruction on race, gender or sexuality.

Many public libraries and universities face defunding for carrying materials these billionaire-backed politicians don’t like. And in some red states, teachers and school librarians may now face felony charges for running afoul of state censors.

In other cases, the public square is falling under sustained assault from extreme wealth. For example, after spending a fortune to buy Twitter, billionaire Elon Musk proclaimed himself a “free speech absolutist” and promptly eliminated nearly all content moderation.

But perhaps “absolutist” was a relative term.

As threats and hate speech predictably flooded the platform, Musk threatened a “thermonuclear lawsuit” against a watchdog group that cataloged the growing trend. He also appeared to suspend journalists who covered him critically.

A parallel problem has played out more quietly in local news, with beleaguered American newspapers outnumbered by dark money news sites, which peddle misinformation while posing as local news outlets, according to NewsGuard.

Lying, of course, is usually protected speech. But when it’s backed by big money and linked to a sustained, state-backed assault on speech to the contrary, then we’ve badly warped the field on which free speech is supposed to play out.

Similarly, when the Supreme Court rules that cash payments are “free speech,” those of us with less cash have less free speech.

Extreme inequality threatens our First Amendment right to speak freely and to assemble together and petition our representatives.

Alongside real campaign finance reform and anti-corruption laws, higher taxes on billionaires and corporations would leave them with less money to spend warping our politics, classrooms and public squares. So would stronger unions that can win pay raises and social movements that protect their communities from retribution.

If we want equal rights to speech, we need a more equal country.

Certo is the communications director of the Institute for Policy Studies and editor He wrote this for


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Peter Certo: Don’t blame campus protesters for trying to have their say (2024)


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