New findings on the free speech views of college students have alarmed audiences left and right this week: 39 percent of college students think the First Amendment protects hate speech, and 19 percent agree that using violence to prevent a controversial speaker from speaking is acceptable.
The survey, conducted by John Villasenor of UCLA, was conducted online, and used a sample size of 1,500 respondents from both private and public colleges. Left-leaning sites including RawStory have attacked the study's merit based on one of its disclaimers––it was conducted by UCLA, with funding providing by the Charles Koch Foundation.
But what's inherently wrong with that? As reported by the Washington Post, and confirmed by Villasenor, CKF had no involvement in the design or administering of the survey. They did not see results before publication. "I had full independence when doing this work," said Villasenor via email. "At no point did CKF attempt to exercise control over the content of the survey or the content of the publication describing the results."
RawStory attempted to smear the results by suggesting that Villasenor was somehow influenced by "perceptions that have taken hold in the media thanks to the right-wing assault against institutions of higher education." But, by this logic, no researcher would be impartial if they've read any news reports in the past few years. It's strange to suggest that the "right-wing assault on higher education" seeps into all thought on the matter, or renders some aspects of free speech unworthy of studying.
Villasenor, too, thought RawStory's logic was strange.
It is indeed true that I was ‘motivated by concerns about the ‘narrowing window of permissible topics for discussion on campuses.'' That's a perfectly reasonable motivation to look into this topic. After all, if there was absolutely nothing notable or interesting about a topic, it wouldn't be worth studying.
It's completely ridiculous that a well-conducted study on free speech attitudes, a relevant topic as provocateurs such as Milo Yiannopoulos take the stage while violence erupts at hallowed institutions including Berkeley, falls victim to baseless partisan attacks. If CKF is choosing to fund studies on worthy topics such as these, and relinquishing any control over the findings, as they should, they're demonstrating a commitment to studying attitudes and trends, not advancing a specific agenda.
By all means, regard the Kochs and Soroses of the world with a degree of skepticism. They've deeply influenced the political system, for better or worse.
But shouldn't liberal audiences welcome the seemingly-good shift in Koch funding practices? If the Charles Koch Foundation and Institute are funding educational programs (which, full disclosure: I have taken part in), studies on noteworthy political trends, and partnerships between left- and right-wing criminal justice groups, isn't that a better use of their money than sending it to some Republican candidate? From a liberal perspective, you'd think providing funding for academic research is preferable to supporting failed presidential candidates such as Scott Walker.
Although Brookings served only as the publication venue, the Brookings-CKF relationship serves as an example of how more organizations should act. CKF has a well-documented history of providing funding for Brookings in the $200,000-300,000 range. This is no secret; tax returns make this abundantly clear.
If CKF were attempting to influence Brookings' findings, and tarnish their reputation, wouldn't Brookings sever that relationship? It's not like an organization such as Brookings needs $280,000 to stay viable. Just because Koch money has touched the hands of UCLA researchers doesn't mean they're controlling the results––and any researcher worth their salt should be able to set clear boundaries for how funding affects study design (it shouldn't, at all). After all, academics rarely go into their fields expecting to be paid like kings.
It's indisputably good that CKF is working with UCLA to study college students' views on free speech. As First Amendment rights fall out of favor with the far-left, it's everyone's job, regardless of political affiliation, to remind young people that when the government uses their power to crack down on political speech, they don't just target the "bad guys." It becomes open season for suppressing ideas and monitoring speech, and that's resulted in FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. and anti-war activists, as well as NSA spying on the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The less we value free speech, the more imperiled these groups and people become.
There's a reason why the ACLU, journalists at The Intercept, and Charles Koch all believe in the value of free speech––it transcends party lines.
Liz Wolfe (@lizzywol) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is managing editor at Young Voices.
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