Trump order may end hostile climate for campus speech



Could the president known for his turbulent relationship with the media and strident criticism of negative news stories become a free-speech savior?

In a bombshell pledge during a two-hour speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday, President Donald Trump said he’d put a stop to campus censorship by starving colleges of federal aid if they fail to safeguard free speech rights.

Trump greeted Hayden Williams, a conservative activist in the CPAC crowd who was punched in the face during a Turning Point USA club registration drive at the University of California at Berkeley on Feb. 19. Campus police later arrested Zachary Greenberg, the man accused of attacking Williams.

“If they want our dollars, and we give it to them by the billions, they’ve got to allow people like Hayden and many other great young people and old people to speak,” Trump said, according to media accounts of the CPAC address.

Trump said he plans to sign an executive order requiring colleges that receive federal funding to “support free speech.”

Details on the proposed order are scant. It’s unclear whether the rule would apply only to public universities, which are bound by the First Amendment but often don’t follow it, or whether private colleges that receive federal funds would also be subject to the requirement.

A recent survey of 466 American colleges and universities showed that just 9 percent earn the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s green-light rating, meaning they do not maintain any written policies that limit free speech. FIRE said 61.2 percent are yellow-light schools, which have vague or broad rules that could be used to punish free expression, and 32.3 percent have red-light policies that clearly and substantially restrict speech.

FIRE, the nation’s preeminent advocacy group for college First Amendment and due process issues, is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“While we are glad that this important national issue has the president’s attention, we do not currently have any more information on the details of the executive order,” FIRE said in a Saturday statement posted to its website.

Colleges have a free-speech problem. It’s been documented in dozens of studies, and while riots like the February 2017 free-for-all over conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos that caused $100,000 in damage to the UC Berkeley campus have been rare, the attitude that enables them is too ubiquitous for our comfort.

Public colleges and universities can be sued for violating students’ First Amendment rights, but without pro-bono representation, that course of action is usually cost-prohibitive. Sprawling state institutions with multimillion-dollar endowments, not undergrads straining under student loans, should bear the burden of ensuring constitutional compliance.

Private colleges are free to restrict speech and treat their adult students like children if they wish, but they shouldn’t be eligible for any federal grant or loan funding. If Title IX applies to private schools receiving public money, why shouldn’t the First Amendment?

Like FIRE, we don’t endorse laws or orders before they’re written. But we support the concept of executive action to ensure students, professors and visitors can speak their minds without sanctions.

Trump may not have a sterling record on free speech issues, but stamping out campus censorship from coast to coast would be one heck of a way to turn the corner.

— The Wilson Times


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