Episode 77: What is the Future of Free Speech?

Michael Schaus

Free to Offend Episode 77 | Guest: Zoe Felbein, Turning Point USA

One of the most troubling aspects of censorship on college campuses isn’t merely what it means for free speech in higher education – it’s but also what it means for the rest of us as those young leaders enter the “real world.”

Zoë Felbein is president of the Turning Point USA chapter at UNLV, and she joined the program to talk about the free-speech culture (or lack thereof) in higher education, and what we can do to bring it back for future generations.

Read the Transcript

Zoë Felbein: If we keep taking conservative students off campus, we’re not going to bring those free speech values back because you have nobody challenging anyone else. If there’s nobody challenging anyone else, we’re just going to get this group think mentality that we already have, and it’s just going to continue to grow.

Michael Schaus: This is Free to Offend. I’m your host, Michael Schaus. Very excited about today’s episode. We are joined by Zoë Felbein. She’s the president of Turning Point USA chapter at UNLV. Very happy to have her here with us because something that obviously we talk a lot about on this podcast is the need for free speech.

We used to think that places like colleges and universities were places where you could actually go and experience new ideas and kind of get out of your comfort zone. And obviously that’s not really the case nowadays. So, Zoë, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.

Zoë Felbein: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited for this opportunity.

Michael Schaus: Yeah. So free speech on college campuses. I mean, it does not take a whole lot of, you know, difficult research or anything to see that, that this is. This is becoming a very serious problem. That there’s not really that culture that exists of, okay, let’s debate ideas, let’s go into uncomfortable intellectual areas and, and hash things out.

It’s really kind of a scary little group think when it comes to a lot of universities. I mean, you see what’s going on at Yale, or Sanford or Berkeley has been a problem for a very long time. Where does UNLV sit? You know, what’s the culture like at UNLV so far that, that you’ve seen?

Zoë Felbein: It’s more hostile with students than professors, in my opinion. I’ve been allowed to bring up concerns and new ideas to professors, where when I talk to students on campus, I am completely shut down, told they don’t want to hear what I have to say. And it becomes a screaming match. I never scream, but they do. They just start screaming random things, and it’s not getting any point across.

Michael Schaus: This is something that I worry about. I was talking to somebody a while ago because I’m unfortunately classified as a millennial. I don’t really know how that happened because once upon a time I was Generation X. Then they changed the dates and whoever made that decision, I need to have a discussion with them.

But I am now considered a millennial. People that I grew up with, these are folks who, you know, we used to disagree all the time on things, and we’d have relatively reasonable discussions. And somewhere in that kind of millennial generation things started to change and it was, I don’t want to be around bad ideas.

And they would start qualifying what were good ideas and what were bad ideas. That’s kind of created a snowball effect. You know, the people that were in my generation that started thinking that way are now running some of these institutions.

But you think that it’s more of kind of your generation that’s doing it less of the professors at UNLV. Why do you think that is? Why? Why is this generation like that?

Zoë Felbein: Social media is the key reason why these students cannot accept ideas that are out of the mainstream norm. I had a run in with a crazy student a couple months ago. And we were talking about things from abortion to capitalism to just free speech in general.

And at one point I realized we weren’t really getting anywhere. We weren’t going to agree anything. So, I told him, “You know what, we can agree to disagree,” and I thought that was fine. He went crazy, started screaming, pulled a poster out of his bag on how Turning Point was a hate group. And I was like, all because I said we could agree to disagree.

And so, I think with social media they’re told there’s a right, wrong and it’s very black and white in their heads.

Michael Schaus: Yeah. And I do think on the social media front, something that I’ve written a lot about and I’ve talked a lot about in the past it’s really easy to get in little echo chambers to find your little social bubble.

I mean, you know, yes, obviously the algorithms are designed to kind of feed you information that you want to be fed, but also, it’s just human tendency to go out and say, “Oh, this is my tribe and I’m going to be in this little group.”

I see obviously a big decline in free speech values on the left, but I also see it in some circles on the right. You know, what has your experience been? Have you experienced any sort of, you know, anti-free speech mentalities among some of the folks who might otherwise kind of agree with you?

Zoë Felbein: I’ve never come into contact with somebody like that. I’ve heard of things happening where they’re like, “Well, the left can’t say anything that they want to say.” And that’s not the point.

We need healthy discussions between the two sides so we can get to an agreement and actually get stuff done. Because if we just keep this, “I’m right, you’re wrong” mentality, we’re never going to get anywhere, and it’s just going to create a further divide.

Michael Schaus: Something I’ve noticed, too is that there’s a very binary way of thinking, especially on college campuses. It’s okay, you have to believe this about the LGBT community, or you are a hateful, bigoted, horrible human being who’s basically just a Nazi. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of room for nuance there.

And I’m afraid that this is something that’s kind of like a contagion. It’s going to spread a little bit. You already see it within, for example, the Republican Party where, you know, the term RINO is nothing new, but holy cow, people are just going after each other.

And I’m sitting there watching that as, you know, not really a staunch Republican guy. I’m more of a libertarian, but I’m watching it going, “You know, you guys have to welcome intellectual diversity.” Like that disagreement is supposed to be a healthy part of what gets us better ideas.

How do we reintroduce some of those values, especially if we’re talking about on college campuses where there’s a student culture that rejects some of those values?

Zoë Felbein: So, I think conservative students need to go back to college. This is something that I’ve promoted and it doesn’t necessarily go with Turning Points’ agenda on that. But I’m a real big proponent of if we keep taking conservative students off campus, we’re not going to bring those free speech values back.

They’re just going to disappear because you have nobody challenging anyone else. If there’s nobody challenging anyone else, we’re just going to get this group think mentality that we already have, and it’s just going to continue to grow.

Michael Schaus: How much do you think people self-censor, too? Because this is something that I think about a lot when I’m talking to especially college students, but even outside of college students in a lot of professional settings. You know, people who have finally finished college and they say, “Yeah, I don’t feel free to say what I want to say.”

And there was recently a Gallup poll that was going over this. I think Pew Trusts also did something similar, where Americans are increasingly nervous about discussing something that might offend somebody. And that to me is kind of the first thing that I think we need to, we need to tackle because if you’re afraid to say what you think, then it doesn’t really matter how much anybody talks about free speech; you’re going to be sitting there self-censoring.

How much of that do you think happens? And do you think it’s a large portion of the student population?

Zoë Felbein: I think a lot of kids self-censor. Because you don’t want to say something wrong. Because all of a sudden then you’re on the front page of the school newspaper because you said something somebody didn’t like.

So, I mean, I self-censor a lot because if I didn’t, my grades suffer. So, when I’m writing essays and things, I need to focus more on that left mentality than what I would love to write. I have written so many essays about global warming that I’ve completely had to come up with stuff because it’s not necessarily what I agree with. But if I were to turn in the other side and all those facts, I would be told that I was a crazy conspiracy theorist and I don’t know what I’m talking about.

So, it’s one of those things where I think a lot of conservative students especially self-censor, because they don’t want to say something that’s going to offend somebody else and all of a sudden, they’re on the front page of the school newspaper.

Michael Schaus: Now I’m going to talk about the opposite side of that too, because this is something I see, especially when you’re talking about pundits and you’re talking about a lot of what goes on on social media when it comes to political matters.

You know, me, for example, I’m a columnist among many things that I do. So, it’s like, I expect hate, you know? I expect to write things and people be upset and write me nasty emails and stuff, and that’s happened my entire career. That’s fine.

Obviously, most people are not prepared to have that kind of hate thrown at them, so they’re going to self-censor a little bit. But what’s strange is we get into this place where all of a sudden you have people who they almost relish in the hate. And they say, “oh, I’m going to go out there. I’m going to troll the left.” You know, it’s like the own the libs type thing and stuff, which makes me laugh. But the problem I have with that is if you’re being intentionally provocative, what you’re not doing is changing any minds.

How do we successfully connect with people who may be very, very ” woke progressive” or something without completely shutting down conversation by just being outlandish? You know, what are some things that you tell students in your chapter or students who might be afraid to speak? How do you tell them, okay, this is how you should start engaging with people who disagree with you?

Zoë Felbein: Listen first, answer second. If you actively listen to what these people are saying and you respond with good, healthy arguments, you might change your mind. If you start screaming like they do when they get upset, it just becomes a screaming match. Nobody learns anything.

What might happen is what I hope I do through our little events that we do is; I don’t necessarily make them super partisan. We had a comedian in August, and we had kids from all over the spectrum come and laugh. And if we build those relationships outside of politics first, then you might change someone’s mind second.

So, I do bring a lot of Turning Point contributors who are really good at having those debates. So as long as we keep a healthy debate and not owning the left, we’ll be able to change some minds, I think.

Michael Schaus: Do you think that there is a good trend going? I mean, you mentioned social media being part of the reason for this kind of group think on college campuses, and I actually extend that beyond just social media. I extend that to cable news and everything else. I mean, cable news is just like a hate mongering little profit machine right now, and it drives me nuts.

The question I have is with all of that kind of cultural headwind that we’ve got going, the fact that it’s overwhelmingly progressive on college campuses, the fact that the institutions themselves are starting to abandon the idea of free speech, we’ve got a political culture that is more interested in dividing people than uniting people.

I mean, realistically, where does somebody start? You know, where’s some of the little places where people can start to get kind of a toe hole, so to speak, and start to actually make progress, even if it’s just in their own backyard or their own group of friends?

Zoë Felbein: I mean, sometimes you got to talk about the uncomfortable things. Like I met one girl in my sophomore public health class, and she was talking about how she was unsure about the Covid vaccine. I overheard it. I stepped in and I said, “Hi, I agree. I’m on the same page you are.” You just got to find those common ground with people and listen and don’t feel bad inserting yourself in conversations, especially on a college campus.

Or volunteering. That’s one of the things that I’ve found is whether it be a nonprofit or a 50c4 or an action PAC, go find the people that are willing to do the grassroots work. And that’s how you start getting a toehold. Just talk to people about what you’re about. And it’ll increase your ability to get other people to at least open their mind to what you’re saying.

Michael Schaus: Something I notice talking to, and I don’t talk to a ton of young groups, but I talk to, you know, my fair share and go and discuss politics with them and particularly the idea of persuasion. And one of the things that really strikes me is I think that the younger generations right now are actually some of the most libertarian generations we’ve probably ever had.

I really think they are in just little things, like everything in their life is customized. You know, we might all have an iPhone or an Android, but every single one set up different. We all want everything to cater specifically to us. I mean, from my generation on, we have very libertarian instincts, save for the fact, you know, one thing and that is this resistance to uncomfortable ideas or uncomfortable conversations.

Do you see that as well? Do you think that the younger generations are fairly libertarian? Because there’s a view out there that look all they want is, you know, Che Guevara T-shirts and a bunch of Carl Mark’s you know, talking points.

Zoë Felbein: I definitely think there is a lot more libertarian students than they realize they are. They’re like, oh, I’m conservative, but I don’t agree with this and this, and I’m like, “Okay, hold on, back up. You don’t agree with this and this. That’s a libertarian view. Like you just want the government out of your lives. Like it’s as simple as that.” And that’s a very libertarian mindset.

I stand like that on a lot of points as well, where they’re like, I just want to do what I want to do. And keep the government out of my life. Can we just do that? And that’s really how my generation is. Just no government. Okay, we’re good.

Michael Schaus: Yeah. There’s just a disconnect there. Growing up when I was in high school and stuff, I used to go to a lot of punk shows and, you know, I was into punk music. I wasn’t necessarily a punk. I was always the kid standing there in like khakis and stuff, but still enjoy the music.

But what I noticed about those groups was they struck me as very libertarian. I mean, it was all anti-authority. It was, “Don’t tell me what to do. Let me live my life. Love everybody,” whatever.

And yet there’s a disconnect between that mentality, that mindset and then when it comes to actual politics. You know, they would sit there and one minute they’re saying, “Get government out of my life.” And the next minute they’re saying, “Government should provide me healthcare,” for example. There’s just a cognitive dissonance there.

What is your view? Why does that cognitive dissonance exist other than the fact that, you know, we’ve kind of been spoon-fed a bunch of leftist talking points through K through 12 and stuff? But is there another reason for that? Is that just people aren’t diving deep enough into it?

Zoë Felbein: Yeah, they don’t understand policy at the core of the issue. They don’t understand policy. If you put legislation in front of these people, they’d be like, “What’s this?” If you told them it was a bill from Congress, they would go, “oh, that’s great,” out the window. “What is the news telling me?”

So, they don’t understand how having universal healthcare would not help them and it would get the government more into their lives. They think the government wants nothing in return. So, I think there’s a very big just disconnect between, like you said, policy, what actual policy looks like and what they think it looks like.

Michael Schaus: There was a moment a couple years ago, and it’s still one of my favorite moments talking to a very far left younger person. I’ll just say that it turns out that I know her very well. She’s fantastic. She’s great. However, she does believe in socialized medicine.

One of the things, like I could see her brain break as I brought it up to her because Trump was still president. And I said, “Okay, well do you feel comfortable with Donald Trump being in charge of your reproductive healthcare?” And she said no. And I said, “Well then why do you want to give government that control?” And you could see the wheels turning.

There’s just not a whole lot of places where people get perspectives or self-reflection in their beliefs. One of the things that I’m a big proponent of is no matter how sure you are that your way of thinking is correct, you need to go out there and challenge it. Find perspectives that challenge it and, and really explore what are the serious reasons that somebody would disagree with me.

Is that a culture that just doesn’t really exist right now on college campuses at all? And if not, how do you start getting people interested in doing that? Because I see that same problem on the right where people don’t really want to seriously engage with why the left thinks the way they think.

Zoë Felbein: So, one of the main problems I’ve run into is I can’t find anybody with good points. All they do is start yelling at me when I challenge them. I had this one guy who was like, “I’m a socialist.” Okay, why? He can’t tell me why he’s a socialist. I said, “You probably shouldn’t be a socialist.”

Or I ask like, why are you a fan of abortion? Or why do you need abortion? And these girls come back just screaming at me. “You’re anti-woman. You hate me.” Like, not the point. If you come back to me with a good reason, I can respect it. But these people aren’t. They’re just parrots. They repeat what they hear.

So, the left never comes out with any good reasons as to why they believe in socialism or why they believe in abortion. It’s all emotion driven versus facts. So, when these leftists come over, I can’t have a debate with them because they’re not giving me anything to debate.

Michael Schaus: Have you been able to find, you know, maybe not in your personal lives, just there on UNLV but I mean, have you sought out and really looked for some kind of intellectual arguments that, that challenge you? You know whether that’s going and reading some Noam Chomsky, or you know, something like that to better understand, okay, maybe I don’t know where this person on the campus is coming from when they are shouting at me because I questioned them on abortion. But have you taken in the effort to go out there and say, okay, what is the legitimate, full-throated passionate reason that a very thoughtful person would disagree with me on X, Y, and z?

Zoë Felbein: I mean, I really challenge myself to go actively looking for things like that so that I can learn because then that betters my argument as to why I like this and what I don’t. So, I mean I keep CNN on my phone when I’m scrolling through Instagram. I follow Fox and CNN because then I get a little bit of perspective on both and what CNN is seeing versus what Fox is seeing. And I have read bits and pieces of some of the stuff that Carl Marks has written. Pains me to read it, but I’ve read it.

And then I also go and look, especially when it comes to, I’ve interned with the Turning Point USA Events team. I always go actively seek out the articles that are written against us so that I can understand what they’re seeing versus what I’m seeing.

Michael Schaus: Is there anything that you’ve changed your mind about that would be considered a pretty consequential policy view or political view?

Zoë Felbein: Yeah, so abortion. I was very much a no abortion for any reason. Leaving high school, I was very much like, you do not need that. It’s not an option. And then I got into college, and I started looking at some of the policy behind it and I was like, Ooh, these Republicans are taking it too far.

Like no exceptions for anything, in my opinion, I’ve kind of come to the point where I tell people I’m pro-life, but pro-choice. I personally would never do it. I’m pro-life in my life, but I’m a Christian. You have to meet your Maker at the end of the day. Who am I to judge you for what you’re doing on earth? God will judge you when it’s time. It’s not my time to judge you.

So, you need to do what you need to do. But personally, I’m going to choose life. And that’s just kind of how I’ve come to the decision. It’s making too many blanket statements, especially with abortion.

Michael Schaus: Yeah, and abortion is a great example and I think a lot of people have kind of gone back and forth on that issue because, you’re talking about two competing rights. Two competing rights that most people understand in the basic form. I mean, you look at the polling on abortion and most people are not completely prohibited under any circumstance or allow it all the way up until birth.

You know, most people fall somewhere in the middle because there’s a reason why we call it pro-life or pro-choice, and that’s it. It’s in the name. It shows you the right that that person is valuing.

What are some of the big challenges you see just running Turning Point at UNLV, but I imagine any school? You know, what are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve run up against in addition to, you know, people just shouting at you?

Have there been institutional barriers? Have you guys had trouble, you know, getting speakers on campus? Because that’s something that we hear about a lot, speakers being run off. You know, what are some of the big challenges that you faced?

Zoë Felbein: I have been blessed to not have any issues with speakers yet because we haven’t brought somebody like Charlie, so I don’t know what that would look like.

But I mean, we do get, it depends on the day and who we’re working with, but when we go to request rooms, sometimes from the school, we’ll get a big veto stamp. And if I do it again two days later, somebody will give us the okay. So, it’s really one of those things where I’m like, okay, if I turn this in now who’s working? And are they going to veto it or am I going to get somebody that’s more accepting of what we’re about? It really just depends on the day.

One of the biggest issues I have and I’m dealing with right now is there’s a guy on campus who threatened to hurt another student and has continuously harassed me. I took it to the school, they gave me a restraining order, and then all of a sudden last week they were like, Nope, you don’t need it anymore.

And it said, the little email said due to additional information, and then didn’t tell me what the information was. So, my campus likes to say we’re pro-free speech. But if you’re threatening to hurt somebody, there needs to be repercussions.

Michael Schaus: Stay safe. You know, because it, it is weird. I mean, we live in a really weird political moment right now. I actually feel really bad for people your age who are trying to get involved in politics. And maybe part of that is the social media. Part of that’s just the political climate.

But I remember years ago, you know, one of my favorite talk shows that I used to work with occasionally, they had a far left progressive and a far-right conservative guy and they would just go back and forth. They were very civil to each other. They were actually really good friends off the air. And it feels like that just doesn’t happen a whole lot anymore. People really want to kind of bubble wrap themselves and here’s one particular perspective.

With that being said, how do you feel moving forward? Do you feel relatively optimistic that free speech is going to kind of make a resurgence your generation? Or do you feel like looking forward, do you feel a little bit pessimistic, whether that’s on the left, right, both one or the other. How do you feel about your generation as a whole, let’s say 10 years from now? Are they going to still have this very anti-free speech mentality?

Zoë Felbein: I think once you get out into the real world and off a college campus, life kind of hits you in the face. So, I’m hoping that once they get off of this little, tiny bubble that they have, they’re able to say, “Oh, well, that person has a point,” or “Oh, well I could still be friends with them. It’s okay. We don’t have to agree on everything.” like I hope that as we mature that mentality comes back.

But these kids are getting locked into college campuses, and they never want to leave. Like the crazy dude is 32 years old. Like, dude, how long have you been in college? So, I think, again, the bubble wrapping. They don’t want to go out in the real world. They want to hide. They don’t want to work. They don’t want the ideas that challenge them. So, they’re really bubble wrapping themselves.

But I think once they finally get out in the real world, they’ll start to be more open to new things.

Michael Schaus: So, what is your plan for getting into the real world when you wrap up with college, you know? What are you going to college for right now? What do you want to do when you actually leave? Are you going to move into public policy, politics, business? What are you looking at?

Zoë Felbein: Yeah, so I am currently in school getting my Bachelor of Science and hospitality and tourism with a concentration in event design and management. So, I hope to go on to work for the Turning Point USA Events team. And I leave just feeling so accomplished and happy every time. It’s amazing.

Michael Schaus: What are some things that you guys got coming up this summer with Turning Point?

Zoë Felbein: Yeah, so we actually have two national conventions. So, in June we have our Young Women’s Leadership Summit, which is in Texas, and then we have our Student Action Summit in July. And I don’t think the location for that one has been released yet, so TBD.

But yeah, it’s a great place for students and adults to come. And you learn a lot, you’re able to just sit there and it’s three days of just learning everything you possibly can and getting the tools to go out and fight. They give you all the tools to be able to go out and change the world.

Michael Schaus: Zoë, I really appreciate it. Seriously, stay safe out there because the world is crazy when it comes to politics right now, but yeah, keep doing the work that you’re doing.

Hopefully, you know, hopefully we can get a little bit more of a culture of free speech back and especially at universities and colleges. But hopefully just more broadly speaking, people stop, you know, getting canceled for saying stupid things on Twitter.

Zoë Felbein: Awesome. Thank you so much for having me. This is fantastic.

Michael Schaus: Again, Zoë Feldman. Yeah, you know, it’s, it really is one of those things when you’re talking about free speech, you know, I want to underscore, I mean, of course, you know, Zoë comes to it from, from a conservative point of view. She’s part of a young, conservative organization on college campuses.

But, you know, I really have to underscore how endangered free speech is on all sides of the political spectrum, because we see it constantly. I mean, in the age of Twitter, you don’t have to spend a whole lot of time to go on and take a look and see just how intolerant people are becoming of anybody that deviates from what they consider to be a good conservative or a good libertarian or a good progressive.

I mean, it’s wild to me. You know, one upon a time, and I wrote about this recently in the Nevada Independent, political parties especially, but even just broader ideological movements, used to understand, hey, we need to build a coalition that is going to, by necessity, be somewhat intellectually diverse.

If you want to have enough people to create a critical mass to change something in the world, you’re going to have to partner with some people who don’t agree with you all the time. They don’t line up perfectly with you and what you think the values should be that everybody should have.

And this is something that we’ve seen, you know, it goes beyond just the inter-party fighting. You see Democrats fighting with the socialists in their own party. You know, the moderate Democrats and the socialist Democrats here in Nevada just recently had a big, nice, nice big dust up trying to take control of the party apparatus.

And of course, you see it in the Republican side too. You know, the MAGA Trump folks with the moderate folks, with the liberal folks. I mean, it is wild to me that there aren’t more voices in either party.

And again, this is even happening in the libertarian party that are sitting back saying, “Hey, let’s find the few things that we do agree on, and let’s embrace some of this intellectual diversity.”

Because honestly, that is what was supposed to be great about college campuses. That’s what’s supposed to be great about a university experience is that you have new ideas. And you’re exposed to those new ideas. You have a huge tapestry of opinions and concepts and perspectives, and going to a university and going to a college was supposed to be kind of your first foray into that type of intellectual diversity where they really get you to think and think critically from a whole variety of different points of view.

And that’s not really what it is nowadays. And what’s disturbing to me is not only is that a problem in college campuses, but quite frankly, the real world is becoming that way as well. Look on Twitter and somebody says something about, you know, I don’t know, pick a topic, trans athletes, abortion, gun rights, whatever it is, and all of a sudden, they’re basically canceled.

I mean, you’ve got these mobs of people again, left, and right, who viciously go out there to attack people who are tangentially or ostensibly part of their own tribe because, ooh, they said something wrong. You know, I think about JK Rowling, for example, who is a pretty progressive person, and yet she came out saying something against trans athletes and all of a sudden that sector of the progressive left now hates her.

Likewise, with people on the right, I mean, you could list off an entire string of names of people that used to, for example, write at National Review that became absolutely reviled during the Trump era because they were not on board with Trump.

There’s a big attitude right now in politics that unfortunately is leading to a kind of very illiberal and intolerant political culture, and I think it’s something that we really need to put the brakes on and understand not only do we need to tolerate a diversity of opinion, and not only do we need to tolerate other people’s uncomfortable speech, but we should celebrate it.

Because once upon a time, we used to celebrate it. Once upon a time we used to understand that that’s the real world. All sorts of people have different perspectives, respect it, understand it, and move on in life. And your job, if you want to go out there and change the world, is to persuade people, not to silence people.

Which reminds me, you should go to Nevadapolicy.org/podcast. Not only can you sign up so that way you get these podcasts right in your inbox, but you can also let us know if there’s somebody or something you think we ought to have on the show, whether that be a guest or a topic, or really anything that you think we ought to be talking about or exploring.

Thank you so much for listening today. This has been Free to Offend.

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 Free to Offend:
A podcast that radically defends free speech by regularly practicing it.

Produced by Nevada Policy Research Institute,
featuring Nevada Policy’s Michael Schaus.