January 11, 2024   6 mins

The hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman has had a busy few months. Mere days after the October 7 attacks, he was calling for the names of any university students who signed letters blaming Israel to be added to a public list — to make sure they didn’t get jobs in the future. In December, he led the social media campaign against former Harvard President Claudine Gay following her disastrous senate hearing — tweeting more than 100 times about her — until a mysteriously-funded dossier documenting her historic plagiarism instances helped ignite a flurry of negative headlines that finally forced forced her resignation. Last week, he floated the possibility of funding the same research against the leaders of MIT, Yale, Princeton, Stamford, Penn and Dartmouth. He might even invest in a startup to do it for him.

All of this activism has propelled him from just another Democrat megadonor and lockdown enthusiast to the latest hero of the political Right. But while you can understand conservatives’ excitement at sticking it to overpromoted DEI hires at elite universities, there has been a distinct lack of questioning over his methods. Putting the plagiarism to one side, surely conservatives should deplore these tactics on principle: publishing lists of people guilty of political wrong-think on university campuses, abandoning the much-vaunted value of free speech, orchestrating pile-ons and demanding resignations on social media. This is what they have been campaigning against for years.

This won’t be popular among my many conservative friends, but since the terror attacks in Israel on October 7 and the divisive war that followed, the tenor, emotion and heavy-handed tactics employed to control the current debate across campuses and throughout our institutions reminds me of how the BLM narrative was ferociously politicised during the summer of 2020. Back then, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the people who lost jobs for incorrect political positions were almost entirely those who were critical of BLM or leftist identity politics. Since October 7, while the circumstances of each termination vary, the firings have all been of people holding pro-Palestinian views.

The departure of Gay, along with Liz Magill, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, has given conservatives much to celebrate. Activist Christopher Rufo sees the whole event as a “successful strategy for the political Right”, while politicians such as J.D. Vance regard Gay’s defenestration as a decisive victory against DEI hegemony. But their original crime — the event that made them a target — was the refusal to crack down on pro-Palestinian activists in the wake of October 7, followed by their congressional testimony on the subject of anti-semitism on campus. The video clip of each leader apparently failing to condemn alleged calls for the genocide of Jews has gone viral worldwide, and on the face of it seems impossible to defend.

But if you watch the full hearing, instead of just the clips, it is very clear what took place. Republican attack dog Elise Stefanik spends her entire questioning slot trying to trap the university heads in specific logical sequence: first, do they agree that calling for “intifada” and chanting “from the river to the sea” are direct calls for genocide? They refuse to concede this point, insisting (I think reasonably) that both terms are context-dependent, and that students must be allowed to express political opinions even if they are personally abhorrent to university administrators. At the end of the hearing, in her final round of questions, Stefanik returns to the theme, asking in summary whether calling for genocide of Jews constitutes bullying and harassment and is against their colleges’ code of conduct? If they were to answer a simple yes, then every student calling for “Intifada” or chanting “from the river to the sea” would have to face disciplinary proceedings, so naturally each university head refuses to bow to that logic and continues to insist that each incident would be a “context-dependent decision”. Hence the now-infamous smirks: everyone in the room could see what the congresswoman was trying to get them to say.

In the event, Stefanik won the day, because their prevaricating clip looked just as bad out of context. She went on to point out the hypocrisy of university administrators spending the past decade training students that “fatphobia” and “using the wrong pronouns” constituted violent and dangerous speech and yet couldn’t condemn actual calls for genocide. The argument landed. But consider the principles that have been conceded in the process of deploying it: not only should the most hateful and extreme interpretations of every word or phrase be used when judging them, but speech is, after all, violence. These are far-Left ideas that conservatives were supposed to be against.

During the height of BLM furore, the far-Left pursued and cancelled high profile targets by inflating the risks posed by conservative speech. In 2020, James Bennet, editor of the opinion desk at The New York Times, was forced into early retirement after running a column by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton. In it, he called for the military to disperse violent BLM riots sweeping the country. Such was the political tenor at the time that the Times’s labor union claimed the article was a call to “invoke state violence” against racial minorities — the mere publication of the piece, the union claimed, placed “Black staff members in danger”. Bennet issued an apology and promptly resigned. And yet the column contained no demand for violence against Black Americans. When the National Guard was indeed called in to restore order by a variety of mayors and governors, just as Cotton had requested, there weren’t any instances of soldiers harming minorities. Was this so different from the current campaign against the university presidents?

The new mood in the political Right goes far beyond Claudine Gay. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who launched his presidential bid promising a war on “woke censorship”, is now demanding the removal of Students for Justice in Palestine, a group his administration claims provides material support for terrorism. This may well be a radical organisation with, at times, poorly informed views. And its toolkit did appear to glorify Hamas’s paragliders. But rather than ban the organisation outright, would it not be more prudent for conservatives to address its insensitive shortcomings in the cold light of day? The Left has long attempted to cancel conservative leaders on campus who were accused of legitimising torture and advocating for pro-American death squads — policies that one might find odious but which should be debated, not deplatformed.

Where direct violence isn’t being threatened, shouldn’t we trust students and readers to digest and assess for themselves? Is it not the duty of a university to allow students to grapple with contentious beliefs and slogans in the marketplace of ideas? Authoritarian states such as Russia and China stigmatise and remove dissenting views on foreign policy on university campuses, broadly categorising any protest as dangerous to national security — Western democracies should be wary of following this path.

Even supposedly neutral academic studies are beginning to show some of the same motivated reasoning that has infuriated conservatives in the other direction in recent years. Exaggerated claims of racism have abounded since 2020, when a widely cited University of Michigan study claimed to have found surging hate incidents against Asian Americans. A closer look at its methodology, however, showed that the researchers counted every major public figure who raised the lab-leak hypothesis to explain the origin of Covid-19 as an example of “anti-Asian” racism. Hardly an example of overt bigotry.

Today, the highly influential Anti-Defamation League has reported a nearly 400% increase in antisemitic attacks across the country. There is every indication that antisemitism is on the rise worldwide, and that Jews are uncomfortable and unsettled with the rising heat of the argument. But the presentation of evidence must be rigorous if it is not to be dismissed as propaganda. In fact, the ADL study counted rallies and protests among its list of hate incidents, including a recent rally by Jewish Voices for Peace and other pro-Jewish groups opposed to Israel’s occupation and military assault on Gaza. This is only one example, but it is a prominent one that cheapens the charge — and by conflating all criticism of Israel’s government with antisemitism it ignores precisely the distinction that some pro-Palestine activists need to be reminded of.

As usual, politicians are the worst offenders and the quickest to jump on a new division for partisan advantage. Democrats have long leaned on fear of fringe white supremacists and minor hate groups to galvanise voters: President Joe Biden even launched his campaign with images of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, to draw a comparison with President Donald Trump. Now, Republicans are capitalising on fears of terrorism and anti-Jewish discrimination. Republican groups are flooding competitive districts with messages denouncing opponents for failing to condemn campus protest rhetoric. In a sad twist, the Republican House committee overseeing academic issues went from hosting hearings just months ago that proclaimed the “ability to speak freely to build one’s knowledge is a cornerstone of the American system and postsecondary education” to demanding speech rules.

No group better embodies this shift than Ackman’s conservative supporters. Gone are the days when appeals to “free speech” were a useful defence for them in the culture wars on race and gender. Instead, its virtues have been abandoned amid a climate of fear and outrage. Ultimately, this calls into question whether these conservatives really believed in free speech in the first place. And this, I fear, could end up being their undoing. For perhaps more than anything, in America, the past months have revealed how swiftly the tables can turn when it comes to censorship. Whatever happens in the coming weeks, however many more academics are defenestrated, the Right should be careful what it wishes for.

Lee Fang is an investigative journalist and Contributing Editor at UnHerd. Read his Substack here.