Tea Party and the Right

Censorship at 'Fox News U'

Students at ultra-right Harding University planned a conference on poverty, but school administrators had other ideas.
In the summer of 2008, a dozen undergraduates at Harding University, a small Christian college in Searcy, Arkansas, decided to organize a daylong conference on the loose theme of “Social Justice from a Christian Perspective.” The idea was to bring in Christian experts to address issues such as poverty, trade and agriculture. The students raised thousands of dollars and spent months planning everything from audiovisual tech support to the lunch buffet.

A few weeks before the event, Harding administrators finally got around to reading the conference website. They didn't like what they found. Officials summarily informed the students they would have to find another home for the rapidly approaching conference. Harding would have nothing to do with it.

“They said that the conference was not in alignment with the mission of Harding,” remembers Zachary Seagle, one of the event organizers and a 2010 Harding graduate. The conference was also not in alignment with the politics found on Fox News, Harding’s de facto campus network. But more about Fox in a minute.

In America, the squashing of free expression and debate on campus is generally known as “political correctness,” or PC, a term with origins in the totalitarian lexicon of Maoist China. Since the 1980s, all of the most prominent professional critics of PC have been found on the right. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind pressed a refined template for the conservative case against PC in 1988.

A decade later, Dinesh D’Souza dumbed Bloom’s argument down, way down, with his breakout bestseller, Illiberal Education. Although the PC debate of the '80s and '90s now seems passé, it remains true that any investigation into the phenomenon pretty much guarantees favorable attention on right-wing television and radio. When conservative filmmaker Evan Coyne Maloney in 2007 released a documentary called Indoctrinate U, which investigated “the assault on free speech and free thought on college campuses,” it was no surprise that he landed one of his most sympathetic and high profile media appearances on "Hannity’s America." The other documentary film of recent years to focus on alleged P.C. on campus, Expelled, was made by Fox regular Ben Stein.

It is a rich if unsurprising irony, then, that Fox News should have such close relations with private Christian colleges that restrict student expression to a much greater degree than anything found at allegedly liberal private and public colleges. Last March, Media Matters disclosed Fox D.C. bureau chief Bill Sammon’s noteworthy appearance on a fundraising cruise for that bastion of right-wing academic orthodoxy, Hillsdale College. In academia, Hillsdale is known for bearing a relation to academic freedom that parallels Fox’s relation to credible journalism. According to a profile in Lingua Franca, Hillsdale is unique in American higher education for its promise of “ideological purity” as reflected in the campus newspaper, the Collegian, which “undergoes regular administrative censorship” that can be “reminiscent of the Soviet media before glasnost.”

Then there is Harding University. With a student body of just over 7,000, Harding provides Fox News with a disproportionate number of its interns and, like Hillsdale, runs a lecture series that frequently features Fox employees and personalities. Harding also shares a reputation with Hillsdale. Professors, students and alumni describe the campus environment as uniquely intellectually repressive and stultifying — a paragon of conservative “political correctness” run amok.

"Harding is a very restrictive environment,” says Becca Burley, a 2011 Harding graduate. “A lot of my teachers are afraid to say what they think because they know they’ll be fired. I’m afraid to speak openly about being gay for fear that my professor will try to report me to the counseling office, or lead a prayer for God to ‘save us from the gays.’”

Burley’s suspicions were borne out during the 2011 spring semester, when Harding officials made national headlines by restricting web access to State of the Gay, a new student gay publication. Hours after an online version of the magazine appeared at huqueerpress.com, the school blocked access to the site on campus servers. The decision was based, as Harding president David Burks said in a public address, because of “what [the site] says about Harding, who we are, and what we believe.” He went on to note the Bible’s classification of homosexuality as a “sin.”

Some Harding students agreed with the administration’s action; others did not. All could follow the resultant controversy in various local and national media, from the Arkansas Times to the Huffington Post. One outlet that did not cover the story was Fox News.

“Fox News is the only news network available for public viewing in the student center, cafeteria, workout rooms, and lobby of the university’s on-campus hotel,” says a veteran Harding employee.“The television monitor in the Heritage Center is ‘locked’ to Fox News and cannot be changed. There is no doubt that this is an effort to ‘brand’ Fox News as the news channel of record on the Harding campus.”

Members of the Harding community who don’t feel like watching Fox News shouldn’t bother trying to change the channel.

“Once I brought a universal remote to the Heritage Center and tried to change the channel,” says Sarah Evertt, a Harding political science major. “I put in the code, but it didn’t work, like it would on any other TV. The set was literally locked to Fox News.”

Other sets on campus are easily changed, but not for long. “We used to go around and change the TVs to CNN,” says another liberal Harding student. “And within minutes they’d be changed back to Fox.”

Unchangeable televisions are just one sign of Harding’s coziness with Fox. In any given semester, the school most likely has at least one communications major interning at Fox News studios in New York. This past summer, the school sent four students to intern on programs such as "The Huckabee Show"and "Your World With Neil Cavuto."This achievement was trumpeted in a school press release titled, “Harding students intern at Fox News in record numbers.”

Harding’s American Studies Institute keeps the flow between Harding and Fox News running both ways. The ASI routinely brings Fox employees and Fox-connected activists to campus. Recent speakers have included David Barton, Steve Forbes, Laura Ingraham, Cal Thomas, Fred Barnes, Bill Bennett, and Sean Hannity. In 2007, shortly after Hannity interviewed the director of Indoctrinate U., the champion of academic freedom broadcast his radio and television program from the Harding campus, thanking his “Harding friends” for the hospitality. When a liberal is invited to speak on campus, they are always “Fox liberals” such as Bob Beckel.

“A lot of the ASI events are absolutely ridiculous, with speakers and students making anti-Muslim, anti-gay slurs, just open bigotry that gets applause,” says Zachary Seagle, who graduated from Harding last year with a Bible and Religion degree. “When Ben Stein came to speak, all he did was bash poor people for an hour, then thanked God for schools like Harding. He’s pretty representative of the level of speaker we get.”

“It has become a safe bet each year that at least one of Harding’s ASI speakers will be associated with Fox News, to the point where you have to think there is definitely an informal institutional relationship,” says a Harding source. “Sadly, most of the faculty at Harding would probably agree that ‘Fox News U’ is an appropriate moniker for the university and many of them would not have a problem with that.”

Those who dissent from the school’s hard conservative line have good reason to fear speaking out. Unlike the vast majority of credentialed institutions, Harding does not have a tenure system. Two years ago, a popular adjunct professor did not have his contract renewed after he posted criticisms of George W. Bush on his private blog, shortly after the former president spoke on campus. “It wasn’t the official reason he was let go, but everyone on campus knew that’s what happened,” says a Harding source familiar with the situation. “The lack of tenure makes it difficult for professors to voice any kind of disagreement with the administration.To put it mildly, many are frightened to raise objections.”

No current professors felt comfortable being identified speaking about Harding’s political climate. When contacted, many sounded more like Chinese dissidents than mid-career American academics. But some alumni are speaking out against the loss of academic freedom at a school founded in 1924 by freethinking Christian liberals and pacifists. Harding alumnus Ed Carson last year published an open letter to Harding’s American Studies Institute on his blog. “The role of the academy is to promote discourse, not to indoctrinate students with only one point of view,” wrote Carson. “Why do conservative schools feel they must espouse conservatism to the point of anti-intellectualism?”

The answer is because they can.

“Some private religious colleges like Hardingstate clearly that they hold a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech,” says Adam Kissel, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “These colleges are exercising their First Amendment right to uphold their own values.”

But the fact that private religious schools like Harding can control and constrict campus debate without crossing into unconstitutional behavior does not lessen the hypocrisy of the conservative media’s line on “political correctness.” Fox News employs a roster of anti-PC warriors who have aligned with and routinely take checks from schools that lack even the pretense of commitment to the right to free speech. In the case of Fox ally Harding and its locked television sets, the network finds itself starring in an Orwellian set piece. The next time you hear a Fox News talking head railing against “PC run amok,” think of Harding University and do what its students cannot: Laugh and change the channel.

Alexander Zaitchik is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist and AlterNet contributing writer. His book, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, is published by Wiley & Sons.