Listening to the Right Voice

News & Politics
bush and textSitting on the outdoor terrace of UC Berkeley�s Free Speech Café last spring, Seth Norman gave every impression of being in his element. His arms were folded on the table, his legs crossed at the ankles. He hunched forward eagerly as he spoke, occasionally waving his hands in politician-like gestures for emphasis. From his body language, it was apparent that he might just as easily have been sitting at his own kitchen table.

His ease of manner is remarkable because Norman is a self-identified neo-conservative on one of the most notoriously liberal campuses in the nation. He is a member of the Berkeley chapter of the California College Republicans and was managing editor of the right-wing California Patriot for the 2002-03 school year. It was only a few days from graduation when we spoke; Norman�s post-graduate plans included starting up Moxy, which will serve as the state-wide publication of the California College Republicans, and joining the Army, because he wants to help in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq.

As if that�s not enough to set him apart from the majority of students on this campus, he is in the midst of expounding his view that he and Berkeley�s other conservative activists represent �the new free speech movement;� the old movement (the one that gave this café its name) was set off in 1964 when the university�s administration banned information and registration tables from one of the main campus crossroads, at Bancroft and Telegraph, in a naked attempt to curb political expression it saw as divisive.

Free Speech

There are plaques on one wall of the Free Speech Café commemorating the movement. One bears a photograph of its lean, hipsterish-looking leader above a dreamy quote about free speech being that which �marks us off from the stones and the stars� as just below the angels.�

cal patriot
The October 2003 issue of the California Patriot.

�The great thing about Mario Savio is that both Democrats and Republicans on campus look up to the guy,� Norman says. �In the 60s, they took this outstanding ideal, they fought for it, and they won the right to free speech. And now, 40 years later, they�ve one-eightied, and it�s �freedom of liberal speech.� And it�s our magazines that get thrown away if we don�t distribute them by hand. It�s our magazines that get stolen and our office trashed. It�s our reporters who get spit on. It�s the exact thing that happened to them 40 years ago.�

It is bold indeed -- in a time when a conservative U.S. president is projecting America�s military power ever-more extensively across the globe in what some see as an attempt to protect the world from the enemies of the �free� (free to them, not to us) market -- for conservative students to claim they constitute a new free speech movement. Certainly it is inexcusable for anyone to get spit on, and it is never right to destroy something a group of people have dedicated much of themselves to producing just because you don�t agree with what they�re hoping to achieve with that product. I think anyone would agree that the responsible students should be punished. But is there really a stiflingly liberal atmosphere on most American college campuses, as conservative students claim? Has the political balance truly shifted so much in the past 40 years that conservatives can rightly claim to be the radical protectors of free speech?

�This campus, which prides itself on being the vanguard of free speech, is actually one of the most intolerant places I�ve ever been,� says Norman. �If you want to be a Green Party member, be a Green Party member. But you gotta let me be a Republican. And they don�t do that here.�

Norman wears this alleged persecution as a badge of honor, and comes across as proud to stand decisively for what he believes in. He sees the left as so divided it often bogs itself down with internal dispute. He claims there is a trend toward conservatism amongst the common man today -- at least partly due to the fact that Democrats �haven�t created a strong platform based on morals� -- and he�s glad to lend an unequivocal hand in shaping that trend.

College Republicans once hosted an Affirmative Action Bake Sale, which charged for its goods on a sliding scale: �25 cents if you�re Asian, 50 cents if you�re black, a dollar if you�re white.�

The conservatives on Berkeley�s campus have employed various strategies in order to insert their views -- whether they�re wanted or not -- into campus debates. They feel that linking themselves to the Free Speech Movement is key to their cause, and employ leftist rhetoric accordingly. They have also been known to stage street-theater-esque stunts, borrowing another page from the progressive movement manual. Norman and other College Republicans once hosted an Affirmative Action Bake Sale, which charged for its goods on a sliding scale: �25 cents if you�re Asian, 50 cents if you�re black, a dollar if you�re white.� They hoped to �underscore how affirmative action works,� according to Norman.

Employing such tactics seems to be a calculated strategy for overcoming the fact that conservatives are massively outnumbered on Berkeley�s campus. But this nation-wide movement is a response to more than just the fact that conservatives are often in the campus minority: The impetus for many students who identify with conservative values and are publishing or writing for alternative newspapers and magazines seems to be a genuine dissatisfaction with the campus environment and the school�s curriculum.

Nation-wide Network

Whereas Savio was backed only by his fellow student activists in his stand against officially-sanctioned oppression, however, there is a large network of well-entrenched, well-funded, national foundations and organizations sponsoring publications like the Patriot, which raises every penny for each of its $3500 press-runs without resorting to university funds.

Because the current neo-conservative movement's power base isn't built exclusively on grassroots activism, it seems their appeal as a subversive, countercultural movement might be inherently limited. It would be unfair to characterize this as a top-down movement, but it is originating from somewhere much nearer the top than did the Free Speech Movement of the 60s.

�These publications, in my view, arose out of students saying, �Hey, we want conservative value development in the academy,�� says Bryan Auchterlonie of Collegiate Network, Inc.

The Patriot is one of the premier conservative college publications in the nation, which probably helps attract donors who, like Norman and the rest of the Patriot staff, feel something is wrong with American academe. �These publications, in my view, arose out of students saying, �Hey, we want conservative value development in the academy,�� says Bryan Auchterlonie, Executive Director of Wilmington, Delaware-based Collegiate Network, Inc. �It�s not as if they want to revolutionize the academy, and make it a conservative environment. What they want to do is give students another way to think about things.�

The Collegiate Network (CN) is a program administered by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), which was founded by William F. Buckley, Jr., author of "God And Man At Yale." Auchterlonie says that CN is devoted to helping students on campus, especially those interested in journalism, �be it through training, financial subsidies to their newspapers, assistance with public relations on campus, or editing stories if they need it.� The CN disperses around $200,000 in operating grants every year to 55 of its 80 member-publications (the other 25 make enough from other sources to go without CN funds). They also help bring conservative speakers to campuses, provide training seminars, and host an annual editors� conference in Washington, D.C. (all expenses paid).

The CN and ISI are just two of the many groups that provide such services: the Leadership Institute, Young America�s Foundation, and Young Americans for Freedom are a few other organizations ready and willing to aid campus conservatives. 50 years after Buckley founded ISI with the express purpose of fostering conservatism on college campuses, a new type of conservative student activist is emerging, and they aren�t just writing their own columns. They�re also not the bow-tie and penny loafers, boys-only crowd any more, either, according to Auchterlonie, who says that it�s just as important for conservatives to �use leftist strategies a little better� as it is that they �loosen up� and �not take themselves too seriously.�

Seth Norman says that at least half of the Berkeley College Republicans are women (including the president and vice-president of the club for the current academic year). He says that there are Asian members, as well, though Asian students are perhaps not as large a percentage of the club as they are of the student body. �We do only have two black members, and a few Latino members,� he admits. And though he�s quick to point out that the Log Cabin Republicans are donors to the Patriot, he also says that there were no openly gay members of the club or the publication�s staff last year. Depending on the spin you want to put on it, this could be indicative either of the still-nascent stage of the movement, or a lack of truly broad appeal.

A new type of conservative student activist is emerging, and they aren�t just writing their own columns. They�re also not the bow-tie and penny loafers, boys-only crowd any more.

It�s tempting to see in the conservative students� use of leftist rhetoric and tactics a well-coordinated marketing strategy. In fact, "Start the Presses, A Handbook For Student Journalists," which CN sends to those aspiring publishers and editors who contact them, advises: �If you generate public controversy, you, too, [sic] can expect media attention.� There are sections that deal with everything from division of staff labor and generating story ideas to manipulating the media in times of controversy. The book contains a lot of valuable advice for any student journalist involved with an alternative publication, though it's also full of diatribes against �on-campus left-wing orthodoxy.� It also makes explicit the reasons for using leftist speech: After a sample response to a reporter�s question, the author writes, �Note the use of traditionally left-wing terms such as 'racial justice' and 'open-minded' in new contexts. When possible, use these kinds of terms ('dialogue,' 'bridge-building,' 'awareness'). Who can object to dialogue or justice?�

Nonetheless, Auchterlonie roundly disputes the suggestion that CN is programming students: �Trying to give students a talking line or tactic is like herding cats. These kids, they�re independent kids, they�re not going to listen to everything you tell them. They should use the rhetoric of the Left, or mainstream rhetoric that�s politically correct, to [express] their interests, because it sells better.� He also says that CN, for their part, never goes out and tries to recruit students to start papers.

Perhaps this is a genuine movement that has grown out of a genuine trend toward conservatism among today�s students. Or perhaps it is a well-conceived method for indoctrinating students in conservative ideals while they�re young and naturally inclined to rebellion, a method devised by conservatives who were dismayed at a growing trend toward progressivism in our nation�s student body. Depending on which side you ask, both of these statements are presented as truth.

Farm League

It seems, though, that it is most likely a little of both, which might seem to mitigate the severity of the threat this movement imposes to the advancement of progressive ideals, except for one thing: President Bush has already signaled his intention to develop a strong grassroots component for his 2004 reelection campaign. While Howard Dean has made some impressive moves, the Democratic field as a whole has not forged a durable link with students; that, coupled with the well-funded network of conservative campus publications employing all the strategies that typically endear students to liberal causes and candidates, is more than enough cause for alarm.

indy media
The Indy is part of a larger network of Independent Media Centers

�The edge these conservatives have is just because they care more about doing these things,� says John K. Wilson, a Ph.D. student at Illinois State University, and a co-founder of the Indy, an alternative, progressive newspaper at ISU. �[Conservatives] put money into it� they have right-wing foundations and right-wing organizations that finance these papers, that provide organization and conferences, and a network for getting jobs after the students graduate. And on the left there�s been much less emphasis on media.�

Wilson knows what he�s talking about; he�s been working, in one capacity or another, for campus publications since 1989, when he started writing a column for the Daily Illini as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign. He feels that the media have often been relegated to an afterthought by the left, where the emphasis has always been on activism. �People [on the left] know how to manipulate the media,� he says, �but they don�t necessarily become the media. And that�s an unfortunate decision.�

It�s unfortunate because campus journalism -- alternative publications in particular -- can serve as a �farm-league� for the professional media. And if that�s the case, conservatives are way ahead of liberals in cultivating the talent in their farm-league, not to mention helping graduating students find a spot in the big leagues.

Not only that, but in far too many cases conservatives are framing the debate about campus media. At many colleges, there is now a mainstream paper and a right-wing paper, and too many students come to think of that as the left and the right. Seth Norman, for example, describes the Daily Californian, Berkeley�s official student newspaper, as "a liberal paper.�

The result is that the real voice of the left is never heard by most students. �The mainstream newspapers are run according to traditional journalistic values of objectivity, there�s very little investigative journalism, or opinion, or muckraking,� Wilson says. �From the view of a left-wing press, I think of mainstream publications as very conservative. It�s not conservative in the sense that these right-wingers are, but it�s a kind of conservatism.�

Couple with this lack of a truly progressive voice the fact that conservative publications are much better at publicizing censorship of their papers, and you begin to see how conservatives have been able to cast themselves as the little guy up against the leftist establishment. Free newspapers are always going to be vulnerable to theft, whether they espouse the ideology of the left or the right. Judging by his own experience, Wilson says that this is �really a universal problem for papers that are opinionated and piss people off. The reason you hear it more about right-wing papers is that they publicize it better and they�ve been better at starting up these newspapers. When the Indy did an issue with �Impeach Bush� on the cover, we had copies stolen, and ripped up. I ran into one guy who was throwing away our papers, and he claimed he was exercising his right to free speech.�

(The Lack of) Voices from the Left

Wilson's website,, provides a lot of valuable resources for progressive student journalists; it is also the venue for the publication of Wilson's annual Report on Academic Freedom, which covers many cases in which liberal or progressive papers, students, and organizations were censored. For instance, last year, the conservative administration of Stetson College shut The Reporter down because it was displeased with the paper�s April Fool�s issue. Wilson even remembers a time when this happened at Berkeley, after conservatives took over the student government and proceeded to de-fund the Diatribe, a progressive newspaper.

The lack of a well-articulated opposing viewpoint clears the way for conservatives to define many campus issues in their favor. �I think it�s really been a big mistake -- ignoring college publications -- that the left has made. They really need to start creating campus newspapers,� Wilson says. Without fostering college publications, the left isn�t doing all it could to reach out to students at a time when they are developing opinions and habits that may stay with them the rest of their lives. Wilson asserts that progressive student publications should also be seen as vital because �If you don�t have college students reading these kinds of papers, they�re not going to want to read the national publications like The Nation or Harper�s after college.�

Without cultivating writers, thinkers, and readers in college, the left risks ignoring the large numbers of independent voters on campuses and thereby hurting its chances to defeat Bush in 2004, not to mention limiting the appeal of progressivism to future generations. It also risks letting conservatives be seen as the irreverent faction that is questioning authority on campus, where many students are eager to challenge the status quo.

The October 2003 issue of Hardboiled

The current conservative movement on America�s campuses has to be admired for its dedication and sheer ingenuity. But Wilson says it best: �I�m all in favor of conservative papers exerting their free speech right and being rude and obnoxious and all that. My concern is not about the vast right-wing conspiracy, but the lack of a vast left-wing conspiracy.�

There are organizations that recognize campus newspapers as essential to creating that vast left-wing conspiracy, and are working on behalf of student publications. The Campus Alternative Journalism Project (CAJP), for example, is �a national network of over 80 progressive campus publications in the US, founded to serve the thousands of students who are making social change through alternative media,� according to their website. Though they don�t have the kind of money that organizations like CN have, they do provide training and other types of support to �grassroots college papers,� which helps these papers �share resources and expertise, combine forces to increase their leverage, and promote their work to a larger audience.�

Some progressive publications have been trying to build networks and increase their leverage even without the help of organizations like the CAJP. Harboiled , a �progressive voice for Asian Americans on the Berkeley campus,� according to story editor Dharushana Muthulingam, teamed up with three other publications, each representing a distinct ethnic group, to produce a magazine called X. �I think because we�re so multicultural here, we should know about all of our issues. We lose sight of the idea that our issues are relevant to everyone, and there�s that sense that, �This paper�s for you guys, this one is for us,�� Muthulingam explains.

�The left is so diffuse,� she continues. �That�s something I personally am involved with, as an editor: How do I link up issues of multiculturalism with environmentalism? Gay rights?�

Of course, another of her chief concerns is funding. Hardboiled receives university funds, as well as grants from the Chancellor�s Fund and the Ethics Department at Berkeley. �Two or three years ago we were comfortable,� Muthulingam says, comparing that situation with today, when budgets are being slashed across the state -- and Hardboiled is feeling the pinch, too. By contrast, she hasn�t noticed a similar problem plaguing her colleagues who identify with the other side of the political spectrum. �The right has money, and they�ve got their act together,� she says. �I don�t think that�s something the left can�t do, inherently, but I would like to see some movement towards that. I have a friend who works for the Patriot, and they never have problems with funding.�

Muthulingam and her colleagues have felt frustrated in the past by the Patriot�s allegations that the Daily Cal is the voice of the left-wing "orthodoxy" because of the implicit claim that is also being made: that only the conservative voice is not fully represented in the mainstream. Still, Muthulingam says that she doesn�t like to see the debate sink to the level of �Affirmative Action Bake Sales.� �[It] didn�t really bring any dialogue on the issues. As an editor, I try to get to the meat of things, rather than pull these stunts. It�s really frustrating, and it really unnecessarily diverts energy. I would like to move beyond those things.�

Michael Gaworecki is a graduate student at San José State University. He welcomes any progressive publications and/or organizations supporting progressive publications that feel they should have been included in this article to email him at He is a regular contributor to WireTap.

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