Letter to the Editor: Brooks vs. Biddle

March 12, 2014

Like many others on campus, I am troubled by the incident involving former Milwaukee county supervisor Eyon Biddle’s visit to Monique Liston’s general education class, but perhaps for different reasons than some. Liston had asked Biddle to speak to the topic of power and politics, and in the course of his remarks he attributed Republican success in the 2010 election to “white rage.” Biddle’s analysis may have been simplistic, overgeneralized, or wrong, but what disturbs me more about this incident are the actions of Kyle Brooks, the College Republican freshman who decided to make this a public affair.

Brooks took offense to Biddle’s remarks and clandestinely recorded Biddle on his cell phone and distributed his recording on the Internet. I am a 63-year-old man who may be a bit old fashioned, but back in the day it would have been considered rude to secretly photograph or videotape another without their permission. I realize that today’s youth have grown up in a “gotcha” culture where this is normative, feeling entitled to share most anything with the rest of the world. But it leaves me wondering, why can’t a student like Brooks simply speak up in class, or talk to the professor afterwards and ask for time to rebut the remarks? Nowadays students seem to think they are entitled to bypass this apparently anachronistic element of human communication and go directly to university administrators, political officials or the media with their complaints.

One of the Internet sites that Brooks sent his recording to is Campus Reform, the group that apparently offered him the most publicity and led to his appearance on the highly partisan Fox News channel. Campus Reform claims to be “a watchdog to the nation’s higher education system,” employing a “team of professional journalists [who] work alongside student activists and student journalists to report on the conduct and misconduct of university administrators, faculty, and students.” In somewhat Orwellian fashion, it claims to hold “itself to rigorous journalism standards,” but there is no doubt it has a decidedly conservative bias, which is revealed by the fact that it is sponsored by the Leadership Institute, an organization whose mission “is to increase the number and effectiveness of conservative activists and leaders.”

Brooks may indeed be a rising star in this movement, but his actions, when duplicated by others time and time again around the country, are creating a chilling effect in college classrooms. When Biddle walked into Liston’s class, I imagine he had no idea that he was stepping into a political minefield where freedom of speech is under attack. I worry that Greg Lukianoff, president of Individual Rights in Education, may be correct when he wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 2012 that “colleges and universities are supposed to be bastions of unbridled inquiry and expression, but they probably do as much to repress free speech as any other institution in young people’s lives.”


Ronald Berger

Professor of Sociology