Tales of free speech under attack in America’s colleges and universities, mostly from left-wing activist students, have led to controversy for years. Conservative speakers such as Heather Mac Donald, a commentator who disputes claims of rampant police racism, have been prevented from speaking to campus audiences by mobs that drowned them out and blocked entrances. Professors have been suspended for uttering a racial slur in class while discussing examples of racism or quoting from literature. Concerns about the assault on speech are voiced across the political spectrum. But now, Donald Trump has decided to tackle the issue by executive order.
The order, signed last month, states that the federal government must “encourage institutions to foster environments that promote open, intellectually engaging, and diverse debate.” To this end, agencies must take steps to ensure that colleges and universities that receive grants from Washington safeguard freedom of speech.
While many conservatives applaud the order, citing incidents in which the right-wing, pro-Trump student group Turning Point USA was prevented from holding campus events, some academic freedom advocates are less sanguine. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the nonpartisan group that has led the fight against speech restrictions in the academy, has issued a guarded statement saying that it will wait to see whether the order results in positive changes or “unintended consequences that threaten free expression and academic freedom.” The order does not specify enforcement mechanisms, or the standards used to define free inquiry and open debate.
Often, campus speech issues are less than clear-cut, involving conflicting rights. Thus, a few days ago, a Mississippi State University journalism ethics instructor, Ryan Phillips, came under fire from conservative media over tweets attacking a conservative campus group, Young Americans for Freedom, and comparing it to the Ku Klux Klan. Members of the group have claimed that Phillips’ tweets subject them to a hostile environment. But is their freedom being infringed, or is it Phillips — an untenured part-time instructor — who is being attacked for exercising his freedom of speech?
One of the ironies of today’s campus speech debates is that so-called “snowflakes” — hypersensitive people who want protection from being offended — are often found on both sides of the political divide. On the left, there are claims that female, minority, gay and transgender students are “unsafe” if exposed to speech that challenges progressive dogma on race and gender. On the right, there are claims that conservative speakers are uncomfortable on liberal campuses where their views are met with disapproval or ridicule.
Nonetheless, there are fairly clear cases in which open debate is under threat. Disapproval is one thing; shouting down a speaker, or demanding a professor’s firing, is another.
It remains to be seen what effects Trump’s executive order will have. If it helps protect professors with controversial views from retaliation, good. (Those views may be on the left as well as the right. Already, the University of California-Davis has cited the order in response to a state assemblyman’s query about disciplining a professor who had posted offensive tweets in support of cop-killing.) But it could also become a tool to target peaceful activism — for instance, to go after students who hold a non-disruptive protest outside a campus event.
Worse yet, the executive order might deepen political polarization, alienating pro-free speech liberals. Regardless of federal action, freedom of thought and debate on campus cannot thrive without an academic culture that supports it. If the free-speech cause comes to be seen as a crusade of right-wing demagogues, it is a lost cause.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.