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Betsy DeVos Watch: Freedom, Free Speech on Campus and the National Constitution Center

October 1, 2018

A few weeks ago, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke at an event organized by the National Constitution Center for their annual Constitution Day.

The speech that DeVos gave in September, was instructive on many levels. A primary theme of the Secretary of Education’s speech centered around freedom and freedom of speech. In many ways, Secretary DeVos was chastising both students and campus administrators of limiting ideas and information. Such a claim seems rather laughable coming from a person who justifies her family’s contribution of millions of dollars during election cycles as “free speech.”

Another point that DeVos addressed was the issue of civility. Civility is a topic and theme that more and more campuses are pushing, especially since there are more and more students and community members who are challenging what they would identify as hate speech.

A good example of hate speech is the student-led protests that have confronted the white supremacist leader Richard Spencer. More and more student groups or community groups that are marginalized – black, latino, immigrant or queer communities – are protesting, interrupting or even trying to prevent those who promote white supremacy, homophobia, closed borders and privatizing education, as a few examples.

These are examples that are in sharpe contrast to the examples that Betsy DeVos does provide. One example, DeVos gives states:

An official student activities board at the College of William & Mary, a public campus in Virginia, recently hosted a director of the American Civil Liberties Union for a discussion on free speech. Almost as soon as the event got underway, students rushed the stage and began to shout down the ACLU representative, an organization typically allied with many of the same causes shared by those who were shouting. The event never resumed.

What DeVos failed to mention is that those protesting the event were members of a Black Lives Matter chapter that were specifically challenging the ACLU’s defense of people like Richard Spencer and other white supremacists to have a public forum to spew their hate. This protest was held in October of 2017, so the BLM protest was drawing attention to the ACLU’s defense of the white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia.

A second example that Betsy DeVos gave in her speech was about U of M students bringing Alveda King to campus and then being charged by the university to provide security. DeVos also mentioned that she was the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. What DeVos failed to mention in her speech was that Alveda King was invited to campus, since she was an anti-abortion activist and was invited by an anti-abortion student group. When other students found out that King would be speaking about her anti-abortion views, the university decided that security would be needed and then charged the group that brought King to campus.

One last example that DeVos mentions was the joint statement that Princeton’s Robby George and Harvard’s Cornel West issued on freedom of thought. While Cornel West issued such a statement, DeVos again failed to mention that Dr. West was part of the counter-demonstration in Charlottesville attempting to shut down the white supremacy march.

Betsy DeVos also stated that the country has “abandoned truth.” Yes, a person who grew up in a wealthy family that was part of the religious right and married into an even wealthier family that is part of the religious right movement that seeks to impose its values on the rest of society, had the audacity to tell students that people have abandoned truth.

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