The age of Trump is upon us, and it is clear that university campuses will be battlegrounds in the fights to come. Two weeks ago, the Arizona state legislature introduced HB 2120, a piece of legislation that would ban courses and events on college campuses relating to “social justice.” The bill, by state representative Bob Thorpe, did not hide its intentions. In fact, it was extremely explicit in its censorious intent. According to The Guardian, HB 2120 would:
“Prohibit ‘courses, classes, events and activities’ in public schools that promote ‘social justice toward a race, gender, religion, political affiliation, social class or other class of people’ Courses and events that are ‘designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group’ or advocate ‘solidarity’ based on ethnicity, race, religion or gender would also be banned.”
This particular bill failed, but like an unexploded shell falling from a quiet sky, you can bet it heralds total warfare somewhere in the near distance. And it is deeply ironic and remarkably hypocritical that the conservatives, who often condemn political correctness on college campuses for unduly suppressing views liberals deem out-of-bounds would, in their domain of influence, promote legislation with the express purpose of limiting the First Amendment rights of those with whom they disagree.
By threatening to cut funding by 10% from academic institutions that offer classes or permit events in the extremely wide range of subjects and activities that comprise “social justice,” Arizona Republicans were engaging in the very stifling of free speech they decry (sometimes justifiably so) on liberal arts campuses. Their attempts at censoring “social justice” activities constitute nothing less than a right-wing version of political correctness, untethered from the kind of First Amendment justification conservatives routinely invoke selectively when it suits their argument. Furthermore, it’s hard to fathom how any true proponents of small government would endorse using the tools of the state—in this case, the power of the purse—to violate, in spirit if not in law, the First Amendment rights of citizens.
It is especially discouraging, at the dawn of the age of Trump, to see Arizona Republicans—and, indeed, Republicans nationwide—crack down on marginalized groups and their allies. It is fitting that Arizona’s latest abomination came in the same week that President-elect Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed foe of “political correctness,” insulted civil rights hero John Lewis, who risked his life and incurred bodily injury as a civil rights activist in the 1960s, as “all talk and no action.” Clearly, many Republicans find the kind of “action” undertaken by men like John Lewis a great threat and will go to great lengths to discourage it, even if it means violating their own alleged respect for the Constitution.
While Trump is not directly to blame for conservatives’ longstanding attempts to de-legitimize the study of social justice, attempts to crack down on marginalized groups and their allies are in line with the President-elect’s authoritarian and racist tendencies. Will Constitutional conservatives, who so often wrap themselves in the First Amendment to defend controversial speech on liberal arts campuses, stand up and defend the students and faculty of universities who find their rights to free speech and assembly endangered?
Given the utter failure of “principled” conservatives to stand up to Donald Trump and his following on so many other, higher-profile occasions, it is far more likely that they will stand idly by as their beloved Constitution is continually trashed by opportunistic bigots. The institutions targeted by bills like HB 2120 should not back down. On the contrary, students and faculty alike should rally against the HB 2120s of the future. Should similar legislation pass, they should endure funding cuts and double down on social justice; backing down would set an awful precedent.
Broader principles are at stake in this fight. Following Martin Luther King Day, it is vital that social justice liberals and economic progressives alike remember that the civil rights movement is not just history, but an ongoing struggle for justice, equality and human dignity. Laws like HB 2120 should serve as a reminder of the fact that the left cannot ever take its capacity to engage in activism and organize protests for granted. On the contrary, Republicans, who currently dominate government on the state, local and federal levels, will attempt to maintain their minority rule by any means necessary.
This makes it all the more essential for the left to defend the principles of equality and the First Amendment, which happen to go hand-in-hand. In his final speech, Martin Luther King, Jr., facing an injunction for his provocative speeches, testified to the importance of the freedoms that Arizona Republicans seek to diminish:
If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there.
But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.
In our commitment to furthering the cause of freedom, we must stand up and fight not only those injustices that the mainstream press deems worthy of reporting, but also smaller injustices like the one nearly perpetrated on the people of Arizona by their government. And we must constantly engage in self-reflection to ensure that we do not fall prey to our own illiberal tendencies or refuse to engage with those with whom we disagree on some issues—or worse, casually dismiss millions of our fellow Americans as deplorable (even if they did cast a deplorable vote).
We can only defeat the racist, authoritarian demagogue about to move into the White House through tireless protest and organization. And that means building a movement by reaching out—and listening to—those who have not yet learned to speak the language of social justice. HB 2120 is only one bill affecting the citizens of one state, but it forces us to consider the basic principles on which any successful struggle for social justice must be based—the principles of freedom that so many gave their lives to defend from the founding of our nation to the civil rights era.