New York Times shows how to do a religion-free report on campus First Amendment wars

Here is my journalism question for today: How does one cover the First Amendment debates that are rocking college campuses across the United States without running into religious issues and religious believers?

I realize that many issues at the heart of these debates are "secular" and "political." However, many of them are not -- especially when one focuses on the beliefs that drive the actions of morally and culturally conservative activists.

There are "secular" activists who oppose the current structure of American laws on abortion, including issues such as abortion linked to gender selection, Down syndrome, the viability of the unborn child, etc. In my experience, however, these debates almost always include religious believers from a variety of traditions.

Then there are issues linked to marriage, family, gender and sexuality. Once again, there are "secular" voices on the traditional, but they are usually outnumbered by various kinds of religious activists.

I could go on and on, but I'll settle for one other example: How many "secular" campus groups are being punished because they don't want to open leadership posts to students who reject some of the groups' core doctrines?

This leads me to a recent New York Times piece that ran with this headline: "In Name of Free Speech, States Crack Down on Campus Protests."

This is a very interesting story about a crucial issue. However, there is a gigantic hole in the middle of it. Here at GetReligion, we would say that it's haunted by a "religion ghost." In other words, read this entire news feature and look for any sign of religious issues or the activities of religious groups or individual believers.

Once again, we see a familiar principle: Politics is the only reality. If people are arguing about free speech, then this is a "political" debate -- period. The First Amendment? That's a statement about politics -- period. There are no connections between freedom of religion and free speech and freedom of association. Here is the Times overture:

When the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin wanted to address the issue of free speech on campus last fall, it adopted a three-strikes policy that is the strictest of its kind: Any student found to have disrupted the free expression of others is expelled after a third infraction.
The goal was to foster an atmosphere of “civility, respect and safety,” and avoid the kind of violent, unruly disruptions that prevented conservatives from speaking at schools like the University of California, Berkeley, and Middlebury College. Those protests had focused national attention on the question of whether college campuses were shutting out politically unpopular points of view.
Wisconsin is not alone. Republican-led state legislatures in Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina have imposed similar policies on public colleges and universities, and bills to establish campus speech guidelines are under consideration in at least seven other legislatures. These efforts, funded in part by big-money Republican donors, are part of a growing and well-organized campaign that has put academia squarely in the cross hairs of the American right.

That leads us to the thesis: 

The spate of new policies shows how conservatives are successfully advancing one of their longstanding goals: to turn the tables in the debate over the First Amendment by casting the left as an enemy of open and free political expression on campuses. It was at schools like Berkeley, after all, that the free speech movement blossomed in the 1960s.
The new efforts raise a question that has only grown more intractable since President Trump took office: When one person’s beliefs sound like hate speech to another, how do you ensure a more civil political debate?

Now, read back through that material.

What we have here are "conservatives" speaking on campus, defended in various ways by Republican money and organizations. Everything is secular and political and never forget that Donald Trump is looming in the background. However, note that one of the most active "conservative" groups in these campus fights is the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is best known for its legal work linked to religious liberty. Why is that group involved?

The bottom line: Political conservatives are attacking academia. The radical defense of free speech has become a "conservative" thing, since liberal crowds shouting down conservative speakers is the big issue. If conservative students attempted to shout down liberal professors, that would be a normal (in other words "real") First Amendment? 

You can tell that religion is hiding in here somewhere, because the Times piece stresses that these particular free-speech efforts offer, in the eyes of academia, an "overly paternalistic approach" and are mere "ammunition in the culture wars."

Yes, there are "secular" issues in "culture wars" land. But when you think of "culture wars" -- as the term is framed in most news coverage -- that issues leap to mind?

Let's look at one more key passage (with an interesting editorial comment by the Times):

Conservatives say that one of their biggest concerns is a growing misunderstanding about what “free speech” means and how the principle is selectively enforced. They point to the slogan used by many liberals today, “Hate Speech is Not Protected Speech,” as an example of how distorted the debate has become. (The First Amendment protects speech regardless of how offensive it is.)
“Whatever the standard is for right-wing hate speech must be the standard for left-wing hate speech,” said Alan Dershowitz, a professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, who also spoke at The Times’s higher education conference.

Read the whole Times piece, if First Amendment issues matter to you.

My journalism question, once again: What did I miss here, in terms of the world's most powerful newsroom taking seriously the religious element of this story?

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