Because of a rise in illiberal speech restrictions on college campuses across the country, a Free Speech Caucus has been formed in the House of Representatives. As an integral part of the caucus’s formation, Young America’s Foundation president Scott Walker, formerly the governor of Wisconsin, spoke with National Review’s Luther Abel to lay out the pressing need for such a caucus and what its members hope to accomplish.
Luther Abel: Please describe the Free Speech Caucus’s aims and the reasoning behind its creation.
Scott Walker: The biggest issue we’re dealing with when it comes to college campuses is cancel culture. Why we call this the Free Speech Caucus is, it’s a step . . . to create some balance. For all the talk of diversity on college campuses these days, the only diversity that is really not apparent is intellectual or thought diversity. Unless you’re aligned with the radical Left, even moderates, let alone conservative voices, are not allowed to be heard. Young America’s Foundation, we’ve been involved in the free-speech battle for some time. Within the last few years, we’ve been in some really big battles at the University of California Berkeley and other places. But Berkeley being the most significant where, after we filed a lawsuit, the university had to back down and change their policies, make a slight payment to us for legal fees, and completely alter their policies. They claimed they were for free speech, but in the end, they put up barriers that made it almost impossible for a conservative group to bring speakers in. This Free Speech Caucus — which has got, even in the last 24 hours, a growing number of members in the House — is one more tool, along with state and local leaders, to try and avoid having to go to court every time there’s a violation of our constitutional rights, and instead be proactive so that students, organizations, and speakers are able to be heard.
LA: What do you mean when you say “free speech”?
SW: The simple thing is the Constitution guarantees the rights of free speech. Our belief [is] that it should not only be guaranteed in the Constitution but revered on our college campuses, yet it’s where it is most at risk. We come at it from a conservative point of view, but when we talk about free speech, it is for everybody. Whether conservative or liberal. It could be someone who has a different religious belief than I do, someone who has a different point of view or opinion. . . . We believe that it is fundamental and should be protected for anyone, regardless of who they are, what they look like, where they come from, or what their beliefs are.
LA: On that last bit, would this include defending the speech rights of those who espouse ideologies such as critical race theory, various forms of supremacy, or forms of collectivism such as communism and socialism? More simply, if they exist, what are the outer limits of acceptable speech?
SW: To us, it has always been two parts. We think that with free speech, particularly on college campuses, there needs to be a discussion of ideas and debate of ideas. Obviously, there are some ideas, like those two examples you gave, are not unrelated, unfortunately, in the sense that CRT in its purest form is state-sanctioned racism. The irony is, that for many of the people claiming to profess their support for [CRT], they also try to claim the legacy of people like Dr. Martin Luther King. If you read his teachings and his words, they’d be quite contrary [to CRT]. One of the most famous speeches of all time by Dr. King, his speech on the Mall of Washington, he said he dreams of the day where his children will be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. Having those debates is certainly one thing. We don’t believe, that from a conservative standpoint, but who knows in the future, it could be somebody else, if you limit one person’s free speech today, years into the future it could be somebody different [whose speech is limited]. One, free speech needs to be guaranteed for everyone, which is what the Constitution says, even if I don’t like [what someone says] or even disdain it. Free speech is a right in the U.S. Constitution, and we shouldn’t have to go to court every time someone tries to block or threaten it. Secondly, as a conservative, I believe it’s incumbent on me, even if I don’t have a perfectly level playing field, but at least have an entry point into the dialogue, then I have to make the case for the ideas that I believe are the best. Just as a tangent, I argue that when it comes to today’s progressives, yesterday’s liberals, that they’re really trying to pit one group of Americans against another. If you don’t agree with them [progressives], then you’re a Neanderthal, you’re racist, you’re sexist, you’re transphobic, whatever the phrase of the day is. Our argument beyond free speech, as conservatives we should be talking about our love for America and how we want freedom and opportunity available for everyone; no matter what they look like, their background, whether they’re born here, or you legally came here from somewhere. We should be advocating for the same thing for everyone, the same access to freedom and opportunity.
LA: With much of education being controlled by the states, what federal legislation will alleviate this need for speech protections? How much should we be regulating education from D.C.?
SW: As little as possible. This [the Free Speech Caucus] is not the be-all-end-all. This is part of an all-out effort where we want to work with governors, lawmakers, local officials, and even leaders on individual campuses. We do know currently, while so much is pushed out of Washington, D.C., it’s good to have some folks in the House and the Senate, and ideally, some people in the administration who are looking out to make sure free speech is part of whatever is coming out of Washington. Personally, I’d love to have nothing come out of Washington. I think our Founders intended it that way. Our goal is not to take over education policy, but rather, for the decisions that are made in our federal government to make sure there are people, watchdogs if you will, looking out to ensure free-speech rights are not only protected but that the actions of the federal government do not in any way encumber the ability of students and other individuals to see their free-speech rights protected.
LA: Who is taking the lead in this caucus?
SW: It was initiated by YAF, Young America’s Foundation. We’ve been pleased to have two co-chairs that we’re working with. Long-time YAF ally and member of congress, Congressman Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), and a relatively new member, the youngest woman in the Republican conference, that is U.S. Representative Kat Cammack (R., Fla.). The two of them are working together. In her case, she actually has a vested interest because the University of Florida is one of the places where we’ve had to work and threaten legal action in the past. She has been very aware of that and is working with Congressman Jordan, who has been very active in this and so many other issues in the past. The two of them are the two co-chairs. We’ll be a part of helping them provide support and information for their monthly briefing. The House, unlike the U.S. Senate, they actually had to file to make this an official caucus, so that’s what we just announced this week.
LA: With the Democrats in control of Congress until at least 2022, what are the short-term opportunities to protect speech with this caucus?
SW: I think one of the biggest things is attention. The mere fact, that as we have a growing number of members in the House, and then subsequently in the Senate, talking about free speech — by the way, it doesn’t have to be a partisan issue. If you look at it philosophically, [there] should be just as many Democrats signing up for this caucus as Republicans. I don’t know practically if that will happen, but if you look at the issue of free speech 40 or 50 years ago, a lot of the people who are purveyors of restrictions on free speech today were college students in the Sixties into the Seventies arguing against university policies they thought [were] prohibitive against liberal points of view. Now there are liberals running those colleges and universities prohibiting conservative points of view. It’s funny how some things come full circle. The bottom line is free speech is free speech, no matter who’s involved [and] what their opinions are. Again, I’m not going to hold my breath that there’s going to be a majority of members of the Free Speech Caucus who are Democrats, but hopefully, there will be some. To me, it should be a chip shot. It’s an easy argument to make that you believe in free speech no matter what. But more than anything, even if this caucus isn’t able to get specific legislation passed, they certainly can draw attention to this issue, which is in itself helpful.