The Culverhouse Debacle Is (Still) A Reminder That Conservative Free Speech Suppression Is Baseless, Bad Faith Nonsense

Despite their rhetoric on free speech, conservatives don’t want any part of the “marketplace of ideas”.

Kimberly Joyner
Jun 12 · 5 min read

Last Friday, the Board of Trustees at the University of Alabama voted to return a $21.5 million donation from Hugh Culverhouse, a long-time Alabama philanthropist. The vote came days after Culverhouse called for a boycott of the state of Alabama, including the university, in protest of a controversial anti-abortion law recently signed by Governor Kay Ivey.

Shortly after the vote, Alabama President Stuart Bell sent an email to UA alumni (full disclosure: I am an alumnus of the University of Alabama) vaguely stating that the gift had been returned “for reasons of academic and institutional integrity”. The following day, June 8, Culverhouse gave his view of what happened in an editorial on AL.com, explicitly accusing the university of punishing him for his political beliefs.

“I expected that speaking out would have consequences, but I never could have imagined the response from the University of Alabama, which on Friday said they would be returning my gift and removing my name from the law school,” he wrote. “It has been painful to witness administrators at the university choose zealotry over the well-being of its own students,” he added, “but it’s another example of the damage this attack on abortion rights will do to Alabama.”

On June 9, a day after the op-ed was published, Alabama released emails that confirmed their version of events — that the school had been locked in a dispute with Culverhouse over the law school’s administration and were planning to return his donation four days before he called for a boycott over the state’s abortion ban.

While the emails provided some much-needed vindication for Alabama, initial reactions to the rejected donation suggest that conservatives were prepared to defend Alabama even if they had admitted to punishing Culverhouse for his political speech.

Notably, at around the time they were heaping praise on Alabama for putting principles above money, conservatives were slamming YouTube following its decision to demonetize videos made by right-wing comedian Steven Crowder, who posted several videos featuring racist and homophobic insults directed at Vox journalist Carlos Maza.

With their knee-jerk defense of Alabama against a left-wing donor, conservatives stepped on their own position opposing institutions, from public colleges to private companies, enforcing speech standards. But consistency in outrage has never been their goal — though conservatives readily point out the inconsistency of those enforcing speech standards. The Culverhouse debacle is just the latest to demonstrate the bad faith inherent to conservative claims of free speech suppression.

To be sure, I believe that Alabama had every right to reject Culverhouse’s donation on the basis that his politics conflict with the vision and values the university wishes to have associated with its law school.

And regardless of whether one agrees with Culverhouse’s views on abortion, his calls for a boycott do run contrary to Alabama’s goals of recruiting and retaining students. Even if Alabama had already decided to cut ties with him before his boycott suggestion, it makes sense that his political speech would cause a permanent rift between the two parties.

But the contradictory responses to the way YouTube and the University of Alabama handled controversial speech prove that conservatives look to the content of speech to decide whether the speech is worth defending. And yet in his defense of Steven Crowder, Texas Senator Ted Cruz disingenuously argued that to avoid controversy over its enforcement of speech standards, YouTube should stop “blacklisting” users for offensive speech altogether.

The leap to laissez faire solutions with zero concern for hate speech or harassment on YouTube’s platform should be familiar to anyone who has followed the Trump administration on domestic policy matters: things that conservatives like — such as tax cuts without pay-fors — ought to be shielded from public scrutiny by the state, while things that liberals like must be defended in the “marketplace of ideas”.

Conservatives clearly believe that public and private institutions have a right to regulate the content being distributed on their platforms (or on their physical property), and to punish individuals who do not adhere to their standards. Ultimately, the only reason conservatives claim to be unfairly targeted by these institutions (despite evidence to the contrary) is to shield themselves from the “market of ideas” they want so badly for everyone else to participate in.

To put it another way, conservatives don’t want to debate their opponents. Crowder’s manipulation of homophobic bullying into a free speech crusade is solely about getting the guardrails of the juridical state behind his desire to inflict harm upon his enemies.

None of this is to say that companies don’t deserve any criticism for how they enforce content standards (or how schools enforce speech standards). A fair argument could be made that too often websites like YouTube don’t enforce their standards until after a political outcry, giving their actions a partisan appearance.

But conservatives have been preying on the fears of colleges, newspapers, and social media companies appearing bias to their benefit for a long time. Pretending that content standards or enforcement of those standards is unfair to them and should be left up to the free market is just bad faith nonsense. Conservatives have never believed in the free market of ideas, and only pretend to do so because they know that the people who truly care about society’s oppressed never could.

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Kimberly Joyner

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Writing at the intersection of politics and pop culture. Based in Atlanta, GA. Email: kimberlyjoyner87@gmail.com.