The Libertarian Playbook

By Jennifer Ruth

Free Speech and Koch Money: Manufacturing a Campus Culture War by Ralph Wilson and Isaac Kamola. London: Pluto Press, 2021.

As I write in late fall 2021, partisan politicians continue a sustained attack on higher education. From the cynical caricature of an academic field, designed to rally right-wing voters, to state bills prohibiting curricula on race and gender justice—not to mention the Florida governor implicitly barring political scientists from testifying in court—these moves, by which the state becomes the mechanism to manipulate and suppress democratic freedoms, come straight out of the authoritarian’s playbook. In Free Speech and Koch Money, however, Ralph Wilson and Isaac Kamola demonstrate the remarkable degree to which libertarian rather than authoritarian ideology has laid the groundwork for these assaults. For decades the Koch family’s probusiness and antiregulation dollars have led many Americans to believe that the United States is overrun by ambulance-chasing lawyers, that there are two sides to the issue of climate change, and, more recently, that “there is an ‘out of control cancel culture’ that maliciously targets conservatives [and] tramples individual liberty.” By funding an extensive network of libertarian think tanks, academic centers, entrepreneurial professors, student groups, media outlets, and lawyers, what Wilson and Kamola call the Koch donor network has shaped the lens through which much of the American public sees universities and colleges.

The ironies of this convergence of interests between libertarianism and authoritarianism are rich. In a matter of months, if not weeks, a Venn diagram of politicians went from introducing legislation requiring colleges and universities to “protect” speech to introducing legislation banning it. But if the hypocrisy boggles the mind, the trajectory of this culture war makes complete sense: by portraying universities as places where illiberal leftist mobs rule and conservative speech must be defended, Koch-funded campaigns generated a political world in which it became possible to censor left-leaning speech (or speech interpreted as such). Free Speech and Koch Money is an indispensable book for understanding how we got here.

Since the 1960s, Koch funding has bankrolled a counterrevolution designed to roll back the progress made by social justice movements. “The same motivated donors and political operatives who use free speech arguments to defend plutocratic spending in elections, breaking unions, and denying climate change,” Wilson and Kamola write, “have also invested heavily in manufacturing campus free speech controversies.” After providing an overview of the long-term goals of the Koch donor network, Wilson and Kamola elucidate its scale and strength by devoting each chapter of their book to one link in the Koch-funded higher education chain: student groups, “provocateurs,” media amplifiers, lawyers, and academics. “The resulting network,” they write, “reproduces an ideology that coheres around the language of ‘individual freedom’ and ‘Western civilization,’ while denying the existence of actual material and historical legacies of racial, gendered, and class-based exclusions, marginalizations, and violences.”

The chapter on student groups traces the ideological and funding histories of Students for Liberty, Young Americans for Liberty, Young Americans for Freedom, and Turning Point USA. It becomes clear that, as Wilson and Kamola put it, “what often appears as localized and spontaneous outrage among conservative students should instead be understood within the context of a larger strategy deployed by well-organized donors and political operatives seeking to fundamentally transform American society.” In addition to recruiting and training campus activists with money provided by the Koch donor network, these groups mount campus campaigns and invite inflammatory speakers to provoke other students as well as faculty and administrators. When incidents occur, they are amplified by the media outlets also funded by the Koch network. The manufactured controversies that result from this loop trigger investigations and even suspensions or dismissals of faculty members. In some cases, the loop mobilizes lawyers supported by libertarian funds to take or threaten action against individual colleges and universities. Wilson and Kamola illustrate the shocking degree to which these circular efforts have allowed the Koch donor network to dictate institutional policy to reluctant but lawsuit-averse administrations.

Examining the student groups leads Wilson and Kamola to the subject of their next chapter: the provocateurs that these groups bring to campus, who are themselves underwritten by the same dollars. Exposing the financial backing of Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, and Charles Murray, the book illuminates the unvirtuous circle by which material is generated that can then be taken up by the media amplifiers, the subject of the next chapter. Wilson and Kamola provide a thorough analysis of what they call “the Koch-funded outrage machine” in their profiles of Campus Reform, the College Fix, Breitbart News, the Daily Caller, National Review, RealClearPolitics, and the Washington Examiner. Drawing on Nancy MacLean’s work in The Disinformation Age, they argue that the stories that these publications churn out are best described as disinformation, because they cannot be mistaken for reasonable discourse on topics of social importance like race and racism. Instead, this coordinated web of outlets “routinely presents caricatures of these complex debates, ignoring decades of actual scholarship, often done by LGBTQ+ [scholars], female [scholars], and/or scholars of color.”

Perhaps the most critical section of this critical book covers lawyers and the law, because here readers learn about the magnitude of the legal movement against civil rights. Litigation groups like the Center for Individual Rights, the Institute for Justice, the American Civil Rights Institute, the Center for Equal Opportunity, the Federalist Society’s Civil Rights Practice Group, Pacific Legal Foundation, Southeastern Legal Foundation, and Mountain States Legal Foundation “champion individual liberty as the pretense for reversing the gains won by decades of mass organizing, civil disobedience, and civil rights litigation.” This chapter also provides useful information regarding the Koch-funded free-speech absolutism driving organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Speech First, and Alliance Defending Freedom. Through their media and litigation efforts, these groups make it exceedingly hard for administrators to address hate on their campuses, and they fatally obstruct attempts by faculty and administrators to thoughtfully navigate tensions between the necessary work of diversity and inclusion and a commitment to open inquiry.

After a chapter demonstrating what can only be called the corruption of individual professors and whole universities that have accepted funding from the Koch donor network, Wilson and Kamola consider how the issues they explore in their book connect to similar ones in other countries and then conclude with welcome advice for pushing back. They offer three strategies for “refusing the plutocratic free speech narrative”: “First, do not engage the campus free speech narrative; instead follow the money. Second, insist on a distinction between free speech and academic freedom. And, finally, draw out the similarities between the manufacturing of the campus free speech crisis and other examples of the plutocratic libertarian class weaponizing free speech to make equally disingenuous, yet politically expedient, arguments.”

Free Speech and Koch Money is a game changer. I make connections now where I didn’t before. I know exactly what it means, for example, when the same names keep showing up in the higher education press to bemoan the allegedly sorry state of free speech on college campuses. “Many Liberal Arts Students Need a Lesson in Free Speech,” American Enterprise Institute fellow and Institute for Humane Studies grant recipient Samuel J. Abrams told us in an October 2021 Inside Higher Ed op-ed. In the Chronicle of Higher Education just ten days earlier, Andrew Koppelman, a frequent speaker at Federalist Society events, pounced on an incident at Yale to call its diversity leaders “bullying” and “coercive.” Following the money has consistently paid off by revealing the extent of this Koch-funded asymmetrical warfare in which the antiregulation free-speech absolutists are infinitely better funded and coordinated than are those of us striving to ensure that our diverse campuses uphold the dignity of all students.

Wilson and Kamola’s book has also enabled me to see how successfully the manufactured narrative has captured the mainstream press. Recently, faculty at my institution received emails from Atlantic journalist Conor Friedersdorf, who wanted to know whether Portland State was a “social justice factory.” His framing of the question made me think it was for a story that he had, in effect, already written. I looked up his work in the magazine and found that some of his articles appear as part of a donor-supported series on “the speech wars.” Which donor gets top billing? You guessed it: the Charles Koch Foundation.

Jennifer Ruth, professor of film studies at Portland State University, is a contributing editor for Academe Blog and a former faculty editor of the Journal of Academic Freedom. She is the author of Novel Professions and, with Michael Bérubé, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments and the forthcoming It’s Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom.