Controversies surrounding the funding of college publications with student fees illustrate some important difficulties when it comes to the funding and activities of the federal government. Wesleyan University’s student government cut funding for the campus newspaper in the wake of an op-ed critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. The University of California at San Diego’s student government stripped funding from all publications funded out of student fees after a dust-up about offensive content in the deliberately offensive and crude student publication The Koala. What are we to make of them?
First, we have to ask whether people should be forced to pay to support things they find offensive. Student fees are voluntary in that students choose to go to this school or that, but there’s a ready analogy to government funding of offensive content (through the National Endowment for the Arts, for example) and mandates that people pay for things that they cannot in good conscience support (like contraceptives through health care laws).
Second, who gets to decide what is “offensive” to the point of deserving sanction and what isn’t? One person’s brilliant satire is another person’s deeply-offensive affront to all that is good and holy. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan wrote about “order defined in the process of its emergence,” which is fancy economics-speak for “live and learn through trial and error.” Norms too are defined in the process of their emergence, and norms emerge through a social conversation that is at times difficult and awkward.
Third, collective funding inevitably politicizes the search for truth. Consider debates about whether “intelligent design” should be included in high school biology textbooks. There are a lot of people who argue that introductory economics textbooks are nothing but right wing, free market propaganda. A few years ago, I was surprised to learn that, according to a school environmental curriculum, overpopulation is a serious environmental concern (it isn’t). When we introduce the power to compel, or when we force everyone to contribute, we create unnecessary political conflict.
Along these lines, compulsion gives the politically powerful the means to silence dissent. Milton Friedman made this point in his book Capitalism and Freedom. What happens to free expression if the government owns the means of production, including the means of intellectual production? If the government owns the printing presses, the paper, and the ink–or the server space–they can decide what gets published and what doesn’t. We’ve been lucky in that organizations like PBS and the BBC have done a good job airing a multiplicity of views on everything from politics to economics to music and art. Friedman’s series Free to Choose originally aired on PBS, after all.
The US and the UK, though, are still market economies in which PBS, NPR, and BBC have to compete for viewers and listeners in a (mostly) free media market. People in societies that have adopted outright socialism haven’t been so lucky.
For student publications, the solution is simple: eliminate fee funding and ask that publications support themselves with advertising revenue, subscription fees, and outside funding. These controversies teach us important lessons about the fragility of free speech, especially when speech is funded from the center.
If you would like to get involved in the free speech movement on campus sign up to host a Free Speech Challenge on your campus!