I was honored and humbled to be present at the White House last week to witness President Trump sign an executive order designed to protect free speech in higher education.

Public colleges and universities must now stop trampling upon students’ First Amendment rights, or risk federal cuts to their research dollars. I hope the order goes a long way in securing students’ freedom of expression.

Too many schools confine such activity to free speech zones_small, isolated areas on campuses designed to marginalize students who want to make their voices heard. Speaker disinvitations are another form of campus censorship, restricting the viewpoints students are exposed to. Some schools even outright deny right-of-center groups official status; UC Berkeley was sued for denying a Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) chapter official status and forced to settle.

Students also try to suppress speech they disagree with, sometimes under the guise of stopping hate speech. Wichita State University’s student government denied official status to a newly forming YAL chapter, citing its “dangerous” views on free speech. A Johns Hopkins University’s student government denied official status to a pro-life group because its presence would make students uncomfortable, and compared its members to white supremacists. Even worse, political scientist and author Charles Murray was assaulted while trying to give a lecture at Middlebury College, and Antifa mobsters caused a ruckus at Berkeley the evening right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was slated to speak. Such incidents cause schools like Berkeley to cancel speakers or force the hosting organizations to pay exorbitant security fees _ a heckler’s veto.

Most disturbingly, three Tulane University students were arrested after setting fire to the door of a YAL member’s dorm room.

It was against this backdrop that I invited Professor Jacobson to give a talk at my alma mater, Vassar College, about hate speech and free speech. I was concerned with students’ attitudes toward free speech, especially the idea that speech deemed hateful should be suppressed.

The lecture drew massive controversy. A student activist group, Healing 2 Action, colluded with the Vassar Student Association to manufacture a campus-wide hysteria, lauding claims that he was a threat to minority students. They demanded Vassar President Elizabeth Bradley shut down the event, but she made sure the lecture went ahead as scheduled after I met with her. The talk was a success, with President Bradley stating in the school paper a few weeks later that Vassar supports free speech on campus.

I never imagined that my efforts to promote free speech at Vassar would garner an invite to the White House. Samuel Mariscal, the Northeast Regional Field Coordinator for the Leadership Institute (LI), who helped secure the organization’s sponsorship and financial support of the lecture, made sure I was on the list. YAL, for whom I served as a New York State Chair and Chapter President, requested my presence as well.

The morning of the signing, I attended a media training with LI, then made my way to YAL’s headquarters. There I was greeted by YAL President Cliff Maloney, Jr and other YAL staffers. We went to the White House together after a brief discussion of what was to come. After going through four security checkpoints, we arrived in the central corridor behind the front door, the luxurious space accentuated by a string quintet and piano. After some time, the doors to the East Room opened and we filed in. Students and alumni from groups including YAL, Young Americans Foundation, and Turning Point USA (TPUSA) were present, as were TPUSA founder and leader Charlie Kirk, LI President Morton Blackwell, Betsy deVos and Kellyanne Conway.

[The string quintet and piano]

[Activists conversing in the central hall with the front door in the background.]

After some delay, President Trump arrived and began talking about how important free speech on campus is and how his executive order, catalyzed by the assault of LI Field Representative Hayden Williams at Berkeley, would preserve it. I sat just feet from him. Several student activists were present behind him, and three were invited to share their stories. The most striking story was told by Polly Olsen, whose school, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, forbade her from distributing valentines containing encouraging messages, including, “Jesus loves you”, because they might be offensive! Trump signed the order, and my thus concluded my fantastic experience at the White House.

[President Trump giving his remarks.]

[Standing in front of George Washington’s Presidential Portrait in the East Room.]

I believe Trump’s executive order is a turning point in the fight for free speech on campus. The order comes on top of efforts by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and YAL activists to overturn unconstitutional speech codes, further incentivising colleges and universities to support the First Amendment. Many students want to eschew free speech in the name of social justice, but there can be no justice of any kind unless freedom of expression is preserved. The President’s action demonstrates a commitment to justice for all students wishing to make their voices heard.

_______

Pietro is a Northeast Regional Director with Students for Liberty and graduate of Vassar College. His top political issues are free speech and Amtrak, and he is an editor and contributor with The Classy Libertarian.

 
 
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