We have been discussing the targeting of professors who voice dissenting opinions about the Black Lives Matter movement, police shootings, or aspects of the protests around the country from the University of Chicago to Cornell to Harvard to other schools. However, student face even greater pressure to conform to a new orthodoxy enforced on our campuses. An example is conservative Georgetown University junior Billy Torgerson who was the subject of a formal resolution of condemnation by the Georgetown University Student Association as well as a call for a bias complaint to the university. The reason is a column posted on his own website entitled “A Nation Of Virtuous Individuals” in which he espouses widely held conservative views of the law and patriotic views of the country.
Torgerson prefaces his column by offering a view of the country as basically good and defending what is commonly called “first principles” of constitutional interpretations by conservative scholars. He starts by saying that “I’ve done a lot of thinking since March 2020. Through all of the conflicting ideas running through my head, one idea remains true over all of them: I love the United States of America.”
The substance of the column first and foremost addresses Torgerson’s criticism of the ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, a decision extending protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to transgender individuals with the expanded interpretation of the term “sex.” Torgerson advocates a position similar to that of three justices in dissent and a large number of conservative lawyers that the term “sex” was never intended to go beyond the narrower meaning. However, he adds
“I bring up this ruling to make my point – yes, the outcome of the case is good for people that identify as LGBTQ. The benefits for these individuals are not the problem. The problem is that this was an overreach of constitutional authority by the Supreme Court of the United States that will have unintended consequences. The process was wrong, and it was perpetrated by flawed actors within our faithful institutions. This is also a failure of Congress to perform a check on the Judicial branch.”
Torgerson spends much of his column praising the United States and rejecting the notion that the country is inherently racist. He also criticized Black Lives Matter as a movement. This criticism is distinguished from the more general cause by Torgerson, who added a clarification that
“In this article, “Black Lives Matter” refers to the ORGANIZATION, not the MESSAGE. Of course Black lives matter – in fact, as far as I am concerned, every life matters. Nobody matters more than anyone else, just like nobody else’s opinion matters more than anyone else. If you don’t like my opinion, draw your own.”
As is always the case on this blog, we are focused on issues of free speech and academic freedom. There are ample reasons to disagree with Torgerson on his statements and his analysis. Indeed, he invited such debate. However, the student government decided that his voicing his opposing views was worthy of censure and many want him investigated. Negrete-Retamales put forward the approved resolution which was adopted with only two dissenting votes. The resolution calls out Torgerson for such transgressions as “the vocabulary in this article invalidates the experiences of BIPOC individuals in and outside of the Georgetown community.” It also objects that “the article states, ‘The United States of America is not systemically racist today,’ by which the author negates the existence of institutional racism.” It also includes the express call for “the Senate body and the campus community to file bias reports in response to the article and journal entries.”
Just two students voted in favor of the free speech rights of a fellow student. The article condemns Torgerson because “the rhetoric in this article is racist, ignorant, discriminatory, demeaning, and hateful.” As is often the case, the University said nothing as a conservative students was censored by the student government for expressing his views on a Supreme Court case and current controversies. For example, the University or the faculty could issue a simple statement from the school’s Speech and Expression Policy that asks students “to judge the value of ideas, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting those arguments and ideas that they oppose.”
Again, Torgerson knew that his column would be controversial and the points that he raises should prompt spirited debate. That is precisely what higher education should foster: respectful but passionate debate. The students isolated legitimately controversial elements about this column like Torgerson’s criticism of the commonly held view of systemic racism and his criticism of the BLM organization. I also disagree with such sweeping statements as:
“Black Lives Matter is a movement entirely based in unfalsifiable ideological possession, and it does not deserve your support. If you support this group, your emotions are being manipulated to push for fundamentally-incorrect solutions to problems that have many moving parts. The United States of America is not systemically racist today.”
I would have liked to see an exchange of students on such issues but that debate is not occurring on our campuses, as vividly demonstrated by this censure resolution.
Instead of publishing their own views on this case or the other issues raised in the column, these students sought to punish Torgerson for expressing dissenting opinions on legal and social issues. As Torgerson is isolated and attacked by the student body, Georgetown remained conspicuously silent. Not a word about how the university must remain a place for diverse opinions and viewpoints. Outside of a couple conservative sites, there has also been virtually no coverage, let alone a defense, of this student columnist by the media in the interests of free speech. The incident was reported on the website The College Fix.
The message from this incident is clear for conservative, libertarian, or just contrarian students: if you voice dissenting views, you will be formally denounced as a racist and your views treated as a “bias incident.” These students know that such action could have a harmful impact on future applications or prospects for students like Torgerson. The intended chilling effect is glacial on any others who want to engage in a good-faith debate over the issues that will be defining our nation for generations.