During his long speech at the CPAC conference on Saturday, March 2, 2019, Donald Trump promised to sign an Executive Order requiring that all universities and college that receive federal funds to protect free speech.

“I will be signing an executive order requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research dollars”

The line got a good round of applause, but the applause was nothing compared to the shock such an Executive Order would be to the liberal dominance of campus life.

We have hundreds if not thousands of posts over the past 10 years devoted to the shut down of campus speech for conservatives. That shut down comes in many forms, most of which related one way or another to identity politics and social justice warfare. The many examples of non-liberal speakers being shouted down and attacked get the headlines because there is video. Attacks on “microaggressions” are humorous, so they get some mocking coverage.

But the silencing of alternative voices on campus comes through more systemic and pernicious methods and ideologies.

The concept of “inclusiveness” which has become a quasi-religion on campuses is seemingly benign, but it can become a passive aggressive means of shutting down dissenting voices when the feelings of listeners take priority. Perceived slights become a ground to silence dissent, because the dissent allegedly creates a non-inclusive environment. Add to it identity politics, where policy disagreement is labeled racist or another -ist or -ism, and you have the silencing of non-liberal views.

There is a culture of intolerance of right-of-center views that can be hard to measure, but nonetheless is real.

We will need to see that such an Executive Order encompasses. There may be a reason he mentioned “research dollars.” There will be a fight over whether Trump can impose conditions on federal funding of higher education through an Executive Order rather than through legislation or agency rulemaking. It may be that a president has more power over research funding and that is why he mentioned it that way.

Regardless, the possibility of the federal government mandating the protection of free speech is an earthquake that is sure to garner a lot of liberal opposition.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed writes:

The announcement was red meat for an audience that has traditionally been among the president’s fiercest supporters. And it’s likely to appeal to conservative lawmakers who have increasingly sought to intervene in campus matters, particularly after free-speech skirmishes break out.

The Pew Research Center found last year that 79 percent of Republicans said they were unhappy with professors injecting their political and social opinions into class discussions, and 75 percent said colleges were too worried about protecting students from views that might offend them.

Before making the announcement, President Trump brought to the stage a conservative activist who was punched in the face last month at the University of California at Berkeley.

The activist, Hayden Williams, had been helping the university’s chapter of the conservative group Turning Point USA.

Williams told the crowd that students like himself face “discrimination, harassment, and worse if they dare to speak up on campus.”

The NY Times noted the pushback already developing:

Floyd Abrams, a leading First Amendment lawyer, expressed concern about the president’s proposed executive order.

“The visage of the most congenitally anti-free-speech administration in American history making a series of decisions as to which campus conduct is pro- or anti-free speech is more than alarming,” Mr. Abrams said in an email Saturday afternoon.

Inside Higher Ed reports on additional pushback:

Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, in an interview shortly after President Trump’s speech, called the proposed executive order “a solution in search of a problem.” He said that is because “free speech and academic freedom are core values of research universities.”

While “controversies do arise,” Hartle said that the norm is for universities to err on the side of promoting free speech. He asked how some federal agency in the future would try to enforce the executive order by determining whether a college had done enough to promote free speech. He predicted that an executive order would lead people to try to create free speech incidents just to create controversy.

And Hartle said that federal law gives religious institutions broad discretion about campus activities. “Would religious institutions be required to have speakers whose views were antithetical to the college?” Hartle asked. “Would Yeshiva University be required to host a Holocaust denier?

Hartle also noted the lack of consistency of the Trump administration about free speech.

“As always in the current environment, irony does come into play. this is an administration that stifles the views of its own research scientists if they are counter to the political views of the administration, such as on climate change. And the president vigorously attacks people like Colin Kaepernick, who exercise their free speech rights.”

Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said via email: “Public research universities have a First Amendment constitutional obligation to protect free speech. It is an obligation they take very seriously and work hard to protect. Our campuses serve as important forums for the debate of diverse ideas. An executive order is unnecessary as public research universities are already bound by the First Amendment, which they deeply respect and honor.  It is core to their academic mission.”

The legal obligation to protect free speech even on public university campuses is not always met, and now rather than an individual student or group having to sue, there would be the more immediate and substantial threat of loss of funding.

I’m not sure how this would work in practical terms, but ending the explicit and implicit silencing of conservative voices and ideas on campus is a move in the right direction.


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