Some Good (and Bad) News About Free Speech on Campus
Plus: MAGA loses its mind over Taylor.
We’ll get to the MAGA meltdown over Taylor Swift in a moment, but I wanted to call your attention to this new report from the folks at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which looks at the state of free speech on university campuses. As you might expect, there’s a lot of bad, but also some encouraging green shoots.
FIRE found that 85 percent of America’s 489 top colleges have at least one policy that could be used to improperly restrict students’ freedom of expression.
University speech codes often seek to advance important goals like eliminating harassment or promoting civility, but even benign-sounding policies can be weaponized against students if they’re overbroad or vaguely worded.
Just in recent years, for example, pro-choice students criticizing the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling were investigated for “harassment,” a student using a Donald Trump Zoom background was charged with “cyberbullying,” and even organizing a scavenger hunt was deemed to “threaten mental health.”
But the picture is quite mixed:
[Ninety-eight schools] — 20% — earn an overall “red light” rating for maintaining policies that clearly and substantially restrict free speech, and 320 (65.4%) earn an overall “yellow light” rating for maintaining policies that impose vague regulations on expression.
Only 63 schools (12.9%) earn an overall “green light” rating for maintaining policies that do not seriously imperil free expression. Eight schools (1.6%) receive a “Warning” rating because they do not promise students free speech rights at all.
While the percentage of green light schools increased this year, this also marks the second year in a row that the percentage of red light schools increased, reversing a 15-year trend of decreasing percentages of red light schools.
The best news?
In contrast to restrictive speech codes, 105 university administrations, university systems, or faculty bodies have adopted free speech policy statements modeled after the “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” at the University of Chicago, also known as the “Chicago Statement,” actively committing their institutions to upholding freedom of expression.
In December 2023, the University of Wyoming adopted a statement titled “Freedom of Expression, Intellectual Freedom, and Constructive Dialogue,” committing to protecting robust, wide-ranging freedom of expression as articulated in the Chicago Statement.
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Stable Genius launches jihad against…
Amid the outbreak of wars and rumors of wars; in the midst of genuine crises at home and abroad, MAGA turned its fevered attention to . . . Taylor Swift.
I hesitate to state the obvious, but this is beyond parody; a story so stupid it makes even our Very Stupid Times blush.
Trump is triggered by the expectation that the pop star, one of most famous women on the planet, may endorse Joe Biden (as she did in 2020). A rational political actor would probably just move on, ignoring the whole thing. But we are not dealing with rational political actors, are we?
The presence of Swift and her boyfriend at the Super Bowl has deranged even the pre-demented, who are spinning out wild, hysterical, and ludicrous conspiracy theories. Like this:
And this from Vivek, who is desperate not to be left behind in the Moron Olympics.
Then there’s Trump Himself, who apparently is somewhat obsessed with the question of whether Swift might be more popular than he is.
Trump’s inner circle is taking time off from
writing detailed plans for foreign policy, the border, and tax cuts, ranting about judges and juries to target the performer.
[Others] close to him — including GOP operatives, some of his 2024 staff, and Trump-y media figures — have been brainstorming different ways to go after Swift. Since late last year, these Trump allies have repeatedly discussed how to turn the culture-warrior dial up to 11 if she re-endorses Biden this year, the sources recount.
“It would be more fuel thrown onto the culture-war fires,” says an official working on the Trump reelection efforts. “Another left-wing celebrity who is part of the Democrat elite telling you what to think.”
Publicly, members of Trump’s inner sanctum and social circle are already signaling Swift’s prominent position atop their enemies list — a situation that has reached fever pitch now that Swift’s boyfriend will once again be playing in the Super Bowl.
For a much deeper dive into the clownish insanity here, check out A.B. Stoddard’s Bulwark piece: “MAGA Has TDS—Taylor Derangement Syndrome.”
Conservatives are going into self-exile.
The movement that once championed small, business-friendly government is now led by far-right media forces hoping to cash in on attention from raging culture wars, sealing off its adherents from the rest of society.
From a bird's eye view, the state of affairs among MAGA Media diehards as it sits today is remarkable. A subset of America actually purports to boycott Disney, the world's preeminent entertainment company; Bud Light, once America's most popular beer; Target, the quintessential brick-and-mortar shopping destination; Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company that produced life-saving Covid-19 vaccines; Major League Baseball, the nation's favorite pastime; and now Taylor Swift, a generational icon and one of the most successful musical artists of all time.
"There’s something striking about watching the far-right tying itself in knots and attacking Swift and [her boyfriend Travis] Kelce that demonstrates how badly the far-right media has alienated itself from most of society," Charlie Warzel, a staff writer at The Atlantic who covers the intersection of politics, technology, and culture, told me Tuesday. "They’ve built out this alternate universe and reality of grievance and it feels like instead of using it to wage an effective culture war, they’re fully lost in it and can’t see that they’ve chosen as their primary enemy the person with the literal highest approval rating in American life right now."
Exit take: Real Men of Political Genius.
Brian Klaas: Why Everything We Do Matters
On Tuesday’s podcast, Brian Klaas joins me to discuss his new book, “Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters”: The world feels like it’s falling apart, and black swan events are on the rise. Is this the result of our unquenchable thirst for optimization and efficiency—as we try to tame an untameable world? How does all this feed the spread of conspiracy theories?
You can listen to the whole thing here. Or watch us on YouTube.
1. How Zelensky Rose to the Occasion
HUSTER DEPICTS ZELENSKY as naïve on the campaign trail, inexperienced in office, and unprepared for war in ways that cost his country dearly when Russian forces crossed the border. In the winter of 2021–22, the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ Chief of Staff Valery Zaluzhny called for “a full-scale mobilization of reserves and the fortification of Ukraine’s borders with Russia to prepare for the coming attack. The president held him back, afraid that such measures would spread panic among the population and give the Russians an excuse to strike.” This was around the same time that the Biden administration was warning that a Russian invasion was “imminent”—and releasing evidence to support that conclusion—and Zelensky was urging Ukrainians not to worry. By that time, his anticorruption agenda had stalled after some early successes, he had failed to achieve peace with Russia in the Donbas, and his approval ratings were piteously low.
Thus it was unexpected, even to many close to him, that Zelensky rose to the occasion as the bombs started falling. He refused to abandon Kyiv, insisting he would stay in the capital and fight. He let the military leaders act without his uninformed interference, and immediately started to round up support from other nations. His leadership was Churchillian in the good ways—and also the bad: sometimes moody, obsessed with his own image, ignorant or prone to misjudgment on military matters, but brave, clear in communication, and able to understand, serve, and lead the spirits of his people as perhaps no one else could.
2. Nikki Haley Is Finally Running a Real Campaign
In the past week, Haley has said Trump is in a state of mental decline, has said she unequivocally sides with the jury following the most recent judgment against the former president for defaming a woman who accused him of sexual assault, and has heavily marketed t-shirts emblazoned with the words “BARRED. PERMANENTLY”—a reference to Trump’s threat that he will exile her donors from the MAGA movement. (The Haley campaign claims to have generated at least half a million dollars from the shirts so far.)
To put it lightly, conservatives are not happy about Haley’s belated Super Saiyan transformation. There was an effort within the Republican National Committee to declare Trump the presumptive nominee and squeeze Haley out by discouraging her supporters and donors. While Trump publicly denounced the plan, it was later reported that he was the one behind it. (Shocker.)
3. Where the Trump Disqualification Push Stands
ON TUESDAY, THE ILLINOIS STATE BOARD OF ELECTIONS voted that Donald J. Trump cannot be disqualified from the presidential ballot in that state for having engaged in insurrection under Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment. This decision follows high-profile rulings in two other states—issued by the Colorado Supreme Court and the Maine secretary of state—that his misconduct does disqualify him from the ballot in those states. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the Colorado decision. Presumably its ruling will bring clarity to the matter, but in the meantime, other state election officials or courts may also make their own determinations about whether Trump can be on the ballot.
4. Biden vs. Trump: What Kind of Leader Do We Want on the World Stage?
IN THIS YEAR’S ELECTION, the country faces a choice between a president willing to take political risks for the country in national security matters and a former president who wants to win regardless of the risks to the country.
The foreign policy records of Biden and Trump are reminders that, as important as it is to consider a candidate’s policy proposals and experience, what really matters is character. Confronting surprises, emergencies, catastrophes, and crises is a major—perhaps even the predominant—aspect of the president’s job.
All the best people.