The Campus Right’s Long War on Free Speech

The Campus Right’s Long War on Free Speech

The Campus Right’s Long War on Free Speech

The peevish, pampered crybabies at Young Americans for Freedom love frivolous lawsuits.


The venerable socialist magazine Dissent and its affiliated podcast Know Your Enemy has joined the long and honorable rank of those subjected to nuisance lawsuits by Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). On Know Your Enemy, left-wing hosts Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell take splendidly informed dives into the intellectual and cultural history of the right. Typical episodes deal with subjects that range from the topical (the death of televangelist Pat Robertson) to the arcane (the impact of the Cold War informer Whittaker Chambers). On its Patreon page, Know Your Enemy offers a range of membership levels for subscribers: Young Americans for Freedom ($5 a month), West Coast Straussians ($10 a month), and John Birchers ($25 a month).

Neither the followers of the Plato-idolizing philosopher Leo Strauss nor the anti-Communist fanatics of the John Birch Society are noted for their sense of humor, but in this case, they were better able to take a joke than Young Americans for Freedom, a lawsuit-happy right-wing student group that has been a shaping force on the right for more than six decades. YAF sued for trademark infringement. Dissent and Know Your Enemy were defended by Brian Hauss, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. Speaking to The New York Times, Hauss described the lawsuit as “absurd,” adding, “I don’t think it’s possible people are genuinely confused about whether Young Americans for Freedom sponsors the ‘Know Your Enemy’ podcast. What this really is, is bullying people who are commenting critically on the conservative movement and using the cost of litigation to do that.”

Fortunately, the lawsuit was withdrawn last week. YAF turned out to be inept as well as malignant: The group hadn’t actually maintained its trademark on the name Young Americans for Freedom. Gore Vidal, a man used to suing and being sued, once quipped, “Litigation takes the place of sex at middle age.” By that argument, Young Americans for Freedom, despite its name, has always been a middle-aged institution.

This is not surprising given YAF’s history. In the early 1970s, Vidal engaged in an embarrassing public act of mutual litigation with one of his favorite foes, William F. Buckley Jr. The conservative icon was instrumental in creating YAF. The student group was founded on his estate in Sharon, Conn., in 1960.

Overseeing the birth of YAF were two defenders of McCarthyism and the stamping out of free speech: Buckley himself and his protégé M. Stanton Evans, author of YAF’s credo, “The Sharon Statement.” Buckley first came to public attention as the disgruntled Yale graduate who warned in God and Man at Yale (1951) of the evils that higher education poses for Christian lovers of the free market. In that book, he called for discarding the “superstition” of academic freedom so the academy could be purged of dangerous voices (by which he meant Keynesian economists and atheists). Buckley’s second book, cowritten with his brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell, was a defense of McCarthyism, McCarthy and His Enemies (1954). Evans was, like many of the younger writers who gravitated toward National Review, a mini-Buckley: a Yale alumni made dizzy by worries of subversion in academia and the government. He would go on write Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies (2007). (Ann Coulter blurbed it as the “greatest book since the Bible.”)

Any organization founded by William F. Buckley and M. Stanton Evans is not going to be supportive of free speech. As historian Lauren Lassabe Shepherd documents in her forthcoming book Resistance from the Right: Conservatives and the Campus Wars in Modern America, YAF has been characterized from the start as a group of extremely pampered establishment scions who are prone to both self-pity and deploying their social and legal power to silence their political enemies. Groups like YAF are examples, Shepherd notes, “of astroturf mobilization against a so-called liberal establishment.” YAF was sponsored by elite pundits like Buckley and had powerful reactionaries like Strom Thurmond on its board, while receiving funding from plutocrats (notably Charles Edison, head of McGraw-Edison; Walter Judd, an anti-Communist US representative from Minnesota; and Ida and Alfred Kohlberg, wealthy textile importers). Like many organizations that have “young” in the title, YAF has often had a leadership that skews old. In his 1980 book Thunder on the Right, former YAFer Alan Crawford complained that YAF “has almost ceased to be a young person’s organization.” The current president—Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor—is 55.

Given these realities, YAF has always been aligned with power, sometimes covertly, as in the University of Southern California, where YAF received secret funding from university trustees. Conservative groups like YAF, Shepherd argues, “understood that they did not need to be popular to wield power. So long as they tapped into existing channels of authority, winning over their peers was not necessary to achieve their desired ends.” In their tactics, YAF prefigured the authoritarian MAGA movement that now dominates the GOP.

YAF was a pioneer in using legal power to combat anti-war and civil rights groups in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Shepherd documents that amid campus turmoil fueled by the Vietnam War, “YAF’s nationwide Freedom Offensive campaign encouraged students to become legally and physically assertive in anticipation of leftists demonstrating by threatening lawsuits against their colleges’ trustees and students while goading radicals into physical altercation.” She writes that in the 1970s the YAF affiliate at Louisiana State University “threatened to sue if the university invested in a Black cultural center on campus.” The spate of lawsuits pushed by YAF include Wuelper v. University of New Hampshire (1970), Voegeli v. Illinois State University (1973), Veed v. Schwarzkopf (1973), and Good v. Associated Students of the University of Washington (1975). As Shepherd notes, most of these lawsuits were unsuccessful. But given YAF’s deep pockets, it was able to use the threat of costly court cases to intimidate administrators who weren’t sufficiently zealous in suppressing the New Left.

These lawsuits often went hand in hand with YAF working with sympathetic campus administrations and law enforcement to crush the student left.

The threat of violence was also always a part of YAF’s anti-left mobilization. In 1968, David Keene, writing in the YAF publication New Guard, argued, “If something is not done, the circumstances of an intolerable campus situation might force who have been wronged over the years to band together and administer a sound and thorough thrashing to the offending rabble.”

Black students, who were increasingly a vocal and visible part of academic life in the 1960s, were part of the “rabble” targeted by YAF. In an as-yet unpublished doctoral thesis titled “‘Conservative Mujahideen’: Young Americans For Freedom’s Crusade for Conservatism” (2022), the German historian J. Georg Wolff documents how deeply racist the group was. In 1966, YAF member David Walter, writing in the group’s libertarian publication Commentary on Liberty, argued, “The Negro is in a second class position because he deserves to be in a second class position. The racial barriers are not insurmountable; the legal barriers no longer exist.” Wolff notes the irony that YAF’s lawsuits against student protests often cited the very civil rights laws that the group opposed.

Regarding Black Americans, YAF combined self-pity with scorn. The YAF position was that they, the student conservatives, were the true victims of persecution, while Black Americans received undue sympathy. This position was made evident in a 1968 article titled “Conservative as [N-word]” for The Carolina Renaissance by Harvey Hukari, then chapter chairman of Stanford University YAF. In that article Hukari wrote, “The [n-word, plural] at Stanford are no longer black students, they’re conservatives. The administration doesn’t give a damn about the moderates or the conservatives on campus because they know we’re not going to sit in the Old Union or try to burn down Encina Hall.… You think having blck [sic] skin is some kind of drawback here? Try wearing a Nixon button to class.”

That same year, another YAF member, Dick Lindmark, claimed that Black Americans “were given the opportunities and they couldn’t hack it.” Acting on this belief, Lindmark, in typical YAF fashion, tried to use the authorities to crack down. He filed a complaint with Minnesota’s human rights department to stop a sit-in by the Afro-American Action Committee. The complaint was rejected.

Ultimately, YAF is a parasitical organization. This is true not just because YAF loves vexatious and baseless lawsuits but also because, over many decades, YAF has proven it is incapable of creating anything original or useful to humanity. Its members are copycats: young people who mimic and ape their elders like William F. Buckley Jr. (himself a pale echo of the reactionary patriarch, William F. Buckley Sr., who founded the clan).

As Shepherd notes, this mimicry extends to the way YAF routinely copies the strategies and culture of the left. In the late 1960s, YAF published an instruction manual called Do It! On Publishing a Conservative Underground Newspaper. This was a sad appropriation of the New Left, as were the many folk songs that YAFers sang at meetings. One song had the lyrics, “Back to back, belly to belly, / Burn their bodies with Napalm jelly, / Back to back, belly to belly, / It’s a Hanoi jamboree.” The YAF publication New Guard published an impassioned defense of a rock group called Rat Finks and the Red-Baiters, which included several YAF members. This group sang a song to the tune of “Jingle Bells” that included the lyrics, “Riding through the Reich, in a Mercedes Benz / shooting all the kikes, making lots of friends. / Rat tat-tat-tat-tat, mow the bastards down! / Oh, what fun it is to have the Nazis back in town.”

YAF prefigured the alliance between mainstream Republicans and the extreme right that has come to characterize the Trump era. Privately, Richard Nixon despised YAF, describing then as “about as nutty…as the militants” on the left. But Nixon also hired YAF members for his administration, including Tom Charles Huston, who had been executive director of YAF from 1965 to ’66. In 1970, Huston wrote a memo calling for the creation of a secret police force free of the constraints of the FBI. In the memo, Huston acknowledged that “use of this technique is clearly illegal.”

In 1990, then–Vice President Dan Quayle praised YAF as “the shock troops of the conservative revolution, the mujahideen of our movement.” This one time, Quayle was right on the money.

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