Q&A: Journalist Conor Friedersdorf Talks Campus Politics


Three people sit at a table onstage
Miranda Joseph and Pomona alum Conor Friedersdorf ’02 discuss the state of free speech on college campuses April 11. (Adela Pfaff • The Student Life)

Conor Friedersdorf PO ’02 is a journalist at The Atlantic, where one of his areas of expertise is campus politics, which he covers from a civil libertarian perspective. He recently visited campus to participate in a Pomona Student Union panel entitled “Actualizing Free Speech: The Regulation of Student Voice on College Campuses.”

TSL: What do you see as the state of free speech at campuses like the Claremont Colleges?

Conor Friedersdorf: I think that a generation of students has lost sight of the arguments for broad free speech laws and norms.

Free speech is indivisible. Any restrictions on free speech or expression are ultimately going to end up doing harm and especially undermining the core rights of marginalized communities who are out of power. Power will always find a way to repress the speech of marginalized groups if there are any speech restrictions allowed at all.

Also, on campuses in particular, I would say we’re trying to educate people who are going to be the next generation of political leaders, business leaders — who are going to exist in a polity with the first amendment and broad free speech rights. And it’s important that they learn how to operate in a system with those rules. And insofar as campus rules or norms depart radically from the norms of the broader society, you’re going to get a kind of inability of the left to compete for ideas and you’re going to give rise to authoritarian leaning presidents and stuff.

TSL: Do you see the desire for free speech as something to balance with the desire to curtail hate speech, and if so, how do you strike that balance?

CF: I’ve never been to a campus like Pomona or Middlebury or Swarthmore where the actual problem on campus is that people are going around using racial slurs. What I have seen is instance after instance of something being labeled hate speech that doesn’t really seem like it’s hate speech to me.

Heather Mac Donald is a pretty good example. I do not think what Heather Mac Donald says is hate speech. I think Heather Mac Donald in her heart of hearts wants a fair and just society. She earnestly thinks that police are the greatest protectors of black lives in America. I disagree with her. I don’t think she’s being hateful when she says it. But that’s the kind of speech I see being shut down.

TSL: What about speech that doesn’t rise to the level of hate speech but still causes harm?

CF: Do I think that the fact that people with Heather Mac Donald’s views exist and inform policy causes harm? Sure. I think that their policies are wrong. Do I think that Heather Mac Donald speaking at Claremont McKenna causes harm? I don’t know. Tell me how.

TSL: The argument is that it would give her a platform.

CF: Heather Mac Donald has much larger platforms. If she spent the time she was at CMC writing an article that was published in City Journal, it would probably cause more harm than speaking at CMC.

TSL: What do you think students should be doing instead of shutting down speakers like Mac Donald?

CF: I wish that students would register to vote here. It would be a powerful block. It could go to city council meetings and literally change the policies of a police department that exists here and that has shot unarmed people and that will probably do so again someday.

Making the largest difference is almost always boring and slow and frustrating, and there’s no moment of big triumph and victory because you’re often compromising and you’re often working with people who you really disagree with, and it’s definitely the opposite feeling of being part of a rally with a bunch of people who you agree with and you’re shouting the same thing.

TSL: As someone who presents as a white man, do you consider yourself qualified to speak to issues of identity?

CF: Well, first I’ll say the thing I don’t feel qualified to do, which is to speak to the internal experiences of others. I think, whether you’re talking about race or gender or even other individuals of the same race or gender, part of being an empathetic person and someone who’s trying to think accurately about the world is recognizing that almost everyone has radically different experiences.

All of that said, what I do feel qualified to do is participate in this public conversation that democracies have to have about all of the issues that confront us. And I don’t think that there are any issues that belong to any one group, however defined. I think that the most controversial things — the treatment of Native Americans, slavery and Jim Crow, all of the biggest crimes in American history — they’re things that everyone owns. Insofar as they echo down and have unjust consequences now, it’s not the job of a particular group to fix them. It’s everybody’s job to grapple with them, to talk about them, to work through them as best you can. And one of the frustrations I have with the way that discourse is on a lot of college campuses are claims about who is allowed to speak about an issue and what viewpoint they’re allowed to express.

TSL: What is your objection to those claims?

CF: There are two objections to that. For the first one, consider abortion, an example of an issue where a lot of people will say ‘you have no right to speak about this as a man.’ You’ll notice that that objection is almost never applied to people who are speaking about it on the pro-choice side. But if one goes around the country speaking to women, you’ll find many of them who are pro-life. Which complicates things, right? So, are you allowed to take a position against women on abortion? Well, if the women are conservative, yes you are, by the rules of this framework. If you’re going to make an identity claim about who’s allowed to talk about what, surely it has to work both ways; it has to be a viewpoint-neutral claim.

My second objection is to the fact that some on the campus left make universalizing claims about the viewpoints of students of color. My reporting indicates that those claims are wildly wrong.

If we’re going to take students of color seriously, we have to acknowledge that this is a wildly diverse group with wildly different experiences of America, ranging from groups that make more money on average than white people to radically less money.

The opinion of students of color is often defined on college campuses as synonymous with the opinion of progressives. However, I get a lot of emails from students who belong to a historically marginalized group and who do not hold the opinions that they’re purported to have by the campus left and feel very uncomfortable expressing their actual opinions because the backlash for them is probably the hardest position to be in on a college campus.

It’s dispiriting because this is a very idyllic place. There’s literally campus admissions officers who hand-selected everyone that’s here. And that fact gives everyone a huge thing in common. No one is going hungry. Everyone has shelter. All of these things that cause conflict in various parts of the world are absent. And so, to the extent that there’s high social fragmentation here and people can’t get along, how does a country of 300 million people — much broader — get along?

TSL: What would you do if you were a college administrator right now?

CF: If I were an administrator, I would make it very clear in the application process that Pomona is a place that puts a high value on diversity of opinion, and that we are intentionally trying to have not only class diversity and race diversity, but also diversity of viewpoint. And we’re going to recruit for all of those things, and if you come here, you are buying into the idea of this project where we’re going to try to live and learn together, and listen to everyone’s viewpoints and not stigmatize anyone for trying to earnestly engage in conversation.

TSL: Any closing thoughts?

CF: I would ask people who disagree with me to make sure you’re disagreeing with the actual positions that I’ve taken in writing on this subject, because it’s a very polarizing subject. There’s a whole cottage industry in different journalistic outlets that are harping on campus things. Although I am oftentimes critiquing at least some of the same things, I feel like I’m making distinct arguments that often are in agreement with the ends that a lot of people on the other side purport to want but that challenge that they are mistaken about the aims that ought to be pursued.

Also, I would encourage people who earnestly hold a view that they think other people are wrong about not to be jerks about it or be aggressive about it, but to take some risks in articulating it. Sometimes that means getting a little blowback from people calling you a name on social media or in a private Facebook group or whatever. But if you do it and someone reacts that way, you quickly realize that you go to bed that night and you wake up the next day, and you have not died, your friends have not abandoned you, your professors do not hate you, your job prospects are not ruined, and it can be liberating in some ways. You find that maybe people are a little more tolerant than you thought sometimes.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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