The Dark Money Ties Behind Free Speech University Tours

The Dark Money Ties Behind Free Speech University Tours

Freedom of speech has never really been a conservative value. This isn’t just the opinion of a liberal newsman — represented in yours truly — but of the admired clinical psychologist and modern philosopher Dr. Jordan Peterson, now hailed as a free speech crusader.

In a recent 2017 lecture, aptly titled “The Left-Wing Case For Free Speech,” Dr. Peterson often cites his studies from The University of Toronto which conclude that political beliefs and actions, in large part, are determined by temperament, genetics and personality traits.

Working alongside Ph.D. candidate Christine Brophy, their study found the tenets of liberalism includes “openness,” which often manifests in their pursuit of creative freedom, entrepreneurship, and equality, in comparison to conservatives with a heightened “orderliness” which draws them towards hierarchy and earning capital. They found each side also share the trend of endorsing their own free speech as a mechanism to achieve their ends.

Peterson elaborated on the left-wing view:

“Free speech is an issue of such primary importance for the maintenance of our culture that it is foolish to assume that it is somehow naturally allied only with centrist or right-wing political agendas,” Peterson began explaining to his Vancouver audience. “In fact, I think a case can be made that such freedoms are even more important for the genuine left, the political movements or positions that can validly speak for the relatively powerless, than for partisan actors of any other political position.”

“If you’re truly on the side of the oppressed like you claim,” Peterson continued, “then you should be standing up as diligently as you possibly can for the right to free speech. It’s the most powerful weapon that you have to right the societal wrongs that you are hypothetically — and perhaps realistically — concerned about.”

From this, it’s understandable how free speech serves as the natural ally to the principled left-wing, who thrive off representation for the disenfranchised and can present innovative viewpoints that hold the establishment accountable. Such anti-authoritarian actors, who reject censorship from the social justice warrior flock, are exemplified in Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the most popular politician in the country, who defended the free speech rights of ALL political speakers on college campuses throughout the country, such as Ann Coulter, Ben Shapiro, and Milo Yiannopoulos. This was soon echoed by his base of progressives represented in programs the likes of Secular Talk, Rational National, and The Young Turks.

With exception to classic pro-freedom libertarians, it’s not so clear why the modern right-wing, who elected Republican President Donald Trump to the tune of 50 million votes, are interested in having free speech as their new rallying cry. The party and president known for threats of using government intervention to criminalize BDS against Israel, attempts at state bans of homosexual discourse and literature in public schools, calls for crackdowns on NFL protests, loss of U.S. citizenship through proposed anti-flag-burning laws and Harvard’s censorship against Chelsea Manning as the result of pressure from the CIA. All instances were met with silence or a rare wrist-slap from the likes of The Rubin Report, The Daily Wire, Turning Point USA, Prager University, among other famous right-wing “free speech” protectors.

Why remain quiet when it’s their guys that are playing social justice warrior?

Thanks to several investigations from political journalists Ashley Wong, Daniel Moattar, Andy Kroll and Alex Kotch, there’s a rather simple answer for this new-found interest: earning capital. From former Bush administration lackeys to affiliates of the Koch brothers, the censorship climate not only gives conservatives the chance to play woeful hypocritical victim, similar to their left-wing SJW counterparts on campuses, but the opportunity to monetize their free speech to the tune of millions of dollars in the process.


In May, the non-profit group Speech First (SF) sued the University of Michigan in federal court over speech code investigations of harassment, bullying and “bias-related misconduct” they found so restrictive against conservative students they claimed they “belong in communist China.” According to The Nation, the group argues that “the mere threat of being investigated” has caused students “to err on the side of caution before expressing an opinion that could cause offense,” stating their bipartisan organization was founded to resist such censorship.

“What if students who wanted to stand up for free speech on campus were supported by like-minded students from all over the country?” the group asks on their website, leading readers to believe Speech First is a grassroots, student-led organization with a genuine interest in protecting human rights. This so-called “association of students, parents, faculty, alumni, and concerned citizens from across the country who’ve had enough, and who want to fight back.”

This would be admirable student activism if it weren’t a lie.

Instead, the organization hold no community meetings, particularly among their aforementioned student activists, hold no online forums for free speech discussions, keep all their donation records anonymous and didn’t answer their emails when The Nation came asking. Could the group just have lazy students, passionate about free speech when it comes to expensive court proceedings yet clueless on how grassroots movements maintain their funds, or is the group not what they seem?

In their phone interview with SF President Nicole Neily, The Nation found it’s much more of a disingenuous, big-donor reliant “astro-turfing campaign,” similar to the 2014 movement the Tea Party, where the power is structured from the top-down. Neily confirmed no students were involved in founding the group, listing off their board of directors which are comprised of exclusively corporate conservative voices they say wasn’t by choice.

Among the names is Kim Dennis, who currently works as the secretary for Donors Capital Fund and chairs/co-founded DonorsTrust, two non-profits whose biggest donors include billionaire political activists the Koch brothers, while serving as secretary of George Mason’s Board of Visitors. Dennis also works alongside Jamil Jaffer and Kate Comerford Todd, two former government appointees from the George W. Bush era (back when flag burning laws were a serious consideration), and fellow George Mason University director Adam White.

Neily continued to note SF’s student input only amounts to $5 lifetime membership dues which they say only makes up “30 to 40 percent” of the total sum. The rest must come from their external donors. “If somebody doesn’t like what we do, based on possible allusions or connections to other groups, I think that’s sad,” she told The Nation. “If someone is going to say we’re hateful based on our connections, that’s really sad. If the Soros foundations also wanted in, I would never turn that money away.”

Except the argument isn’t against free speech. It’s about truthful speech.

Consider that Neily herself is also senior fellow and former executive director at the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), a conservative non-profit who also take donations from Donors Capital Fund and DonorsTrust with open arms. An analysis from Mother Jones once called DonorsTrust “the dark-money ATM of the conservative movement” for their ties to funding groups such as the NRA Freedom Action Foundation, the anti-abortion Priests for Life, and the Tea Party. And it’s not unlike the Koch brothers to expect power over the institutions they fund. The New York Times reported on cases where the Kochs were attempting to influence the hiring process of faculty across campuses and which subjects could be taught. Actions which, by all accounts, aren’t exactly pro-free speech in their own right.

Their central concern about the free speech crisis on college campuses isn’t unfounded. TrigTent has reported on the censorship of student activists and professors, which take part in violent protests in ANTIFA riots, but their influence rarely involves the backing of undisclosed donors, unlike the conservatives showcased in their public financial returns obtained last year by The Daily Californian. The journalists found both Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust have donated $1.12 million and $219,000 to the organization Young America’s Foundation (YAF) since 2002, who are among the most influential groups organizing free speech events across the country.

This is the same organization that just loved to play the victim when UC Berkeley asked the group to pay $16,000 in security fees when controversial conservative speaker Ben Shapiro was asked to give a speech. They had more than enough money to cover costs, but it seems that facts just seem to get in the way of narrative-espousing feelings.

The Koch brothers contribute thousands to YAF in annual donations, joining the ranks of Bush’s former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ($20,000 in funds since 2005) and the DeVos family ($25 million since 1998) as lavish enablers of conservative speech. Their donations helped ensure YAF’s collection of $124 million in gifts and donations since 2010. With over $54.3 million being devoted to these campus free speech tours alone, speakers like Shapiro are more than happy to preach values of “fiscal responsibility,” calling for the government to defund Medicare and Medicaid, except on fiscal issues where government benefits his donors.

Giving speeches which praise the Trump’s administration’s latest round of corporate and upper-class tax cuts despite being unpopular among the populace and adding over $1.9 trillion to both the debt and deficit. Giving speeches which ignore the Pentagon budget sitting at $716 billion as of 2018, three times more than budgets of Russia, China and U.S. allies combined, meanwhile the Kochs hold million dollar military contracts which are only strengthened by Shapiro’s ideas, echoed down the line by other YAF affiliates such as Steven Crowder, Dennis Prager, Dinesh D’Souza, Dave Rubin and former Bush policy advisor Karl Rove. Even YAF’s supposed right-wing competitors, Turning Point USA (TPUSA), the non-profit founded by the rather pro-Trump “conservatarian” Charlie Kirk, just reuse the same donors from GOP mega-donor families, politicians, and wealthy individuals.

The International Business Times found over $900,000 of their funds since 2016, including a $10,000 donation from Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in 2015 and millions from multiple Koch family foundations such as the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) and the CATO institute. IHS is also the organization that founded Learn Liberty, the libertarian think-tank that has secured guests for The Rubin Report since 2016. Now, suddenly, Dave Rubin has a stand-up comedy gig headlining before Kirk’s TPUSA events and built his in-home studio estimated to cost above six figures. Both Rubin and Kirk have refused to answer questions about their corporate ties.

Now, don’t mistake this as a call for these events to be shut down, whether through violence or some unethical administrative practices, based on the belief that these ideas are disagreeable.

This wouldn’t be consistent with the principles of free speech.

This is, however, a call for credible speech from honest actors.

It was IWF chairman Heather Higgins, the former pharmaceutical heiress and investment adviser, who once said: “being branded as neutral, but having the people who know that you’re actually conservative, puts us in a unique position.”

It’s fine to take money. It’s fine to believe some disastrous ideas about governmental policy, religious affiliation, and flat earth theory. Dr. Peterson, a self-described “true speech advocate,” is right that dialogue — truthful dialogue, where we actually say what we mean — is the only means by which we can address the most important issues of our time. The public should demand that the liars, from the donors to their talking puppets, are made known so as not to waste our time with partisans-for-hire.