Freedom of Speech According to the Gospel of Koch

Photograph Source: DonkeyHotey – CC BY 2.0

Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of history of education at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, kicked off his 1 July 2021 essay, “Universities, we have a problem we are afraid to speak of”, by citing a 2020 survey of free speech among US university students with the result that “six out of 10 felt they could not express an opinion for fear of negative reactions from peers, faculty or administrators”.

This annual publication, also known as the “worst colleges for free speech in America” list, is a must-have guide for every parent concerned that her or his child’s “conservative” views may not be respected at a particular higher education institution.

Says Zimmerman about the survey results: “At most colleges and universities, we pretend like that never happened. We need to get our own house in order, but we still have our heads in the sand. US colleges and universities better get their act together, or else.”

The bête noire in his dire scenario is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who recently signed a bill that requires state colleges and universities to “conduct an annual assessment of the intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” which enables students who feel their freedom of speech has been violated to sue their institution.

What he failed to disclose to readers is that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which conducted the survey in cooperation with a fellow traveller organisation called RealClearEducation (RCE), is a proponent of the oxymoronic “intellectual diversity movement” whose goal is to “dismantle the so-called liberal bias” in US academia, according to Sourcewatch, a website of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD).

FIRE’s mission is “to defend and sustain the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities”, which is to say “conservative” students and faculty members.

A politically active non-profit is born

The impetus for FIRE’s founding in 1999 by Alan Charles Kors, the Henry Charles Lea Professor Emeritus of History at Penn, tells you all you need to know about this organisation.

Six years earlier, one of his advisees, a freshman by the name of Eden Jacobowitz, was angry because of a sorority event taking place near his dormitory. His response was to open the window and yell the following to a group of African American women below: “Shut up, you water buffalo! If you want to party, there’s a zoo a mile from here.” This nasty incident became a cause célèbre, a rallying point for US “conservatives”, well-heeled and otherwise.

After Jacobowitz was charged with violating the campus speech code by using racist hate speech, both student and adviser claimed that “water buffalo” had no history as a racial epithet, an example of deflection and dissembling that would make any “ends justify the means” lawyer proud.

His lame excuse that he may have been thinking of the Hebrew word “behemah”, which means “beast”, in reference to people who don’t know how to behave around others, beggars belief.

Using this twisted logic, why not use insults that are obvious references to different groups of “the other” but have no “history” as such? That way you can cloak yourself with a veneer of plausible deniability. The charges were subsequently dropped and Jacobowitz agreed to apologise for “rudeness”.

To punish someone like Jacobowitz for calling a group of Black female students “water buffalo”, whether or not it has no history as a racist term, is not political correctness; it is common decency in a civil academic community and society.

Freedom of speech does not give one licence to say anything to anyone at any time, including yelling “Fire!” in a theatre, “Bomb!” on a flight, “I’ve got a gun!” while going through airport security or “Shut up, you water buffalo!” on a college campus.

The same logic also applies to hurling insults at people you’re angry at and may even hate because of the colour of their skin or another distinguishing feature. Limits on absolute freedom of speech are in defence of fellow human beings who deserve freedom from verbal abuse and attacks related to their ethnicity, gender, race or sexual orientation – who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

We are all accountable for what we say, write and do. As the last of the Buddha’s Five Remembrances reminds us: “My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.” People like Jacobowitz and the organisation that rose from the wreckage of his misdeed stand on shaky ground, at best.

The limits of labels

The US is a country in which duality reigns supreme. A black and white view of the world is deeply embedded in the thinking of most US Americans, including those with advanced degrees. Good versus evil, us versus them, conservatives versus liberals, Democrats versus Republicans. This view of the world is best expressed in the saying: There are two sides to every argument. In reality, of course, many arguments and issues have multiple sides. To view the world in such childlike terms is to grossly oversimplify a complex reality.

Labels invariably fail to do justice to the people being labelled. The definition is in the mind of the labeller. Let’s define what these labels mean rather than assume that everyone knows. To call someone a conservative or a liberal says little about their world view and the values in which it is rooted and what makes for a just and humane society. Why not use words as precision tools rather than bandy about murky terms that sow confusion and misunderstanding?

A related cultural point is the US American notion that 1) everyone has a right to their opinion; and 2) all opinions are equal and therefore morally equivalent. The former is correct, the latter is not. This misconception evokes Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s comment: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

While people have the freedom to spout lies, they should be challenged at every turn with facts.

Finally, the US population, in a society already characterised by an especially virulent strain of anti-intellectualism, has been dumbed down to such an extent that it’s much easier to deceive and manipulate people.

According to a recent study, 54% of US adults between the ages of 16 and 74 are functionally illiterate, meaning they cannot use reading, writing and calculation skills for their own and their community’s development. That’s 130 million people, or nearly 40% of the population.

In a 2004 essay “‘Intellectual Diversity’: The Trojan horse of a dark design”, Stanley Fish noted, in response to the question about who is winning the culture wars in academia, that “if the palm is to be awarded to the party that persuaded the American public to adopt its characterisation of the academy, the right wins hands down, for it is now generally believed that our colleges and universities are hotbeds [what is a “hotbed” anyway?] of radicalism and pedagogical irresponsibility where dollars are wasted, nonsense is propagated, students are indoctrinated, religion is disrespected, and patriotism is scorned”.

Whose bread I eat, his song I sing

As with most organisations, regardless of the flowery rhetoric on their website or the Orwellian code they use, all you have to do is follow the money to discover FIRE’s true agenda.

This non-profit is flush with the millions of dollars in donations it has received over the years from the Charles G Koch Foundation (US$3,427,561 from 2008-19), the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation: US$1,815,000 from 2000-19) and the Sarah Scaife Foundation (US$1,305,000 from 2012-18), among many others. FIRE and RCE are the loyal institutional soldiers in the ongoing US culture wars that were ignited long before the founding of the republic.

It’s worth noting that Charles Koch, chairman of the board and CEO of Koch Industries, ranks 16th on Bloomberg’s list of US billionaires with a net worth of US$63.6 billion, as of 3 July 2021. Charles and the family of his late brother, David (1940-2019) each own 42% of the company.

Since FIRE is consuming enormous quantities of Koch, Bradley and Scaife bread in pursuit of its mission, I thought it would be instructive to briefly review exactly what their agenda is, of which the centrepiece is limited government, including examples of what it means to be “conservative” and “libertarian”.

In the world according to Koch, their beliefs are based on the amorphous concept of freedom, including freedom of the individual, free trade, freedom from high taxes and business regulations, etc, ad nauseam.

They believe in low personal and corporate taxes, skeletal social services for those in need, less industry oversight, especially environmental regulations, in order to maximise corporate profits, fossil fuel dependence, patriotism (read nationalism), tax cuts for the wealthy, defunding teachers’ unions and taxpayer vouchers for private and religious schools.

Specifically, “conservatives” are against climate crisis rules and regulations, consumer and animal welfare organisations, drug decriminalisation, gun control, increases in the minimum wage, labour unions, public transit, renewable energy, same-sex marriage, worker rights, etc.

The Koch brothers and others who support organisations like FIRE and RCE have used their 12-figure fortunes to promote this agenda on steroids.

The ideal society its adherents envision is a cruel, unjust and heartless one that is devoid of compassion, caring and solidarity, and favours the wealthy, the financially fittest, over everyone else.

As one commentator noted: “In their view, every area of human life should be subjected to the destructive whims of predatory capitalism.”

This belief system has worked exceedingly well for people like the Koch brothers: white, uber-rich and “captains of industry”.

Through their considerable influence funded by millions of dollars of inherited wealth, they have convinced other US Americans, primarily white males who don’t benefit from their ideal world, at least economically, to internalise the same beliefs. Jonathan M Metzl documents this “politics makes strange bedfellows” phenomenon in Dying of Whiteness.

This story illustrates the fact that money buys influence. Utah State University has a Koch scholars programme, sponsored by Charles Koch. Fifteen business students are given a US$1,000 stipend and selected to participate in a “reading group” in which they are required to read one book per week.

One of the recipients, the son of Latino immigrants whose goal is to become a social worker, felt honoured at first but soon became convinced that the programme was promoting an ultra-conservative view. Required readings had titles such as Order Without Law and Anarchy Unbound. In other words, freedom is good, government is bad – the heart of the libertarian message.

The truth will set you free

In a November 12 2020 op-ed piece for the Chicago Tribune, Zimmerman, beating the same old FIRE drum, wrote that he was “saddened by the way his [Donald Trump’s] sadistic and vindictive spirit has infused our entire culture, including our institutions of higher education”. He says: “I grew up imagining the university as [a] place where you were free to pursue any line of argument as far as you could take it, so long as you could marshal evidence for it.”

He neglected to add that people like the Koch brothers don’t care about evidence. They care about creating a reality, Karl Rove-style, whose benefits disproportionately accrue to them. Those of us who know the score about politically motivated non-profits with an axe to grind, like FIRE and RCE, and know who the power behind the throne is, do not share Zimmerman’s unassailable belief in their credibility and legitimacy.

What I’m afraid of is that 1) too many US higher education leaders, hands outstretched, are happily taking the Koch brothers’ and similarly tainted money, thus allowing the latter to buy influence; and 2) others are not taking a bold stance against the intrusion and interference of people like the Koch brothers because they’re afraid, don’t care or want their own piece of the pie. Now that’s a problem worth speaking of.

The battle lines in the culture wars are clearly drawn. There is neither a middle ground nor the possibility of compromise. The first step in jamming their transmission and derailing their attempts to help shape the thinking of the next generation of political and business leaders is to know thine enemy.

This essay originally appeared on University World News.

Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He is an associate member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam and can be reached at