Donald Trump • Education • First Amendment • Free Speech • Post • The Left

A Million-Dollar Punch

President Trump on March 2 announced he would issue an executive order addressing free speech on college and university campuses. The order itself hasn’t been issued, and so far there has been little indication of what it might say. That hasn’t stopped a torrent of criticism aimed at what Trump might do. The higher education establishment is worried. The president’s words suggest that significant funding could be at stake.

This is what President Trump actually said about the executive order during his two-hour speech at the Conservative Political Action Committee’s annual convention. First, he made some general comments:

We reject oppressive speech codes, censorship, political correctness and every other attempt by the hard left to stop people from challenging ridiculous and dangerous ideas. These ideas are dangerous. Instead we believe in free speech, including online and including on campus.

Then, after introducing Hayden Williams, the young man who had been punched while distributing conservative pamphlets at UC Berkeley, Trump continued:

Today I am proud to announce that I will very soon be signing an executive order requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research dollars.

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. Free speech. And if they don’t, it will be costly. That will be signed soon.

Certainly these statements convey a tone and an attitude, put they do not present a policy beyond the general sense that the pending executive order would forge some link between research funding and institutional support for free speech.

Trump’s words about the executive order won lots of applause but the more vivid moment was his praise of Williams, whom he advised to sue his assailant and the university. Trump forecast that the punch would make Williams a wealthy man. In theory, it could also impoverish a lot of colleges and universities that, at this point, are tied up in ideological knots and have no idea how they could reconcile their profound dependence on federal spending with their eagerness to appease the illiberal Left.

The most sensible response to Trump’s remarks has been Adam Kissel’s essay in National Review, “An Executive Order on Campus Free Speech.” Kissel surveys the numerous twists and turns, water traps, fire pits, and rock walls that such an executive order would have to navigate. Which institutions? Private as well as public? Funding for research or for institutional overhead? How would the policy promote or inhibit the search for truth? Would the policy get to the less obvious ways that colleges and universities suppress dissenting views, such as faculty hiring? Might the new policy actually encourage such repressive measures as “bias response teams” that routinely stigmatize unpopular views? How would the government know when a college is violating its new rules? What would happen to these rules in the hands of a different president?

Numerous other figures have commented more harshly on the pending executive order, including the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Zimmer (“a grave error”) and Terry Hartle, who is senior vice president of the establishmentarian redoubt, the American Council on Education. Hartle called Trump’s proposed executive order, “A solution in search of a problem.”

How to Fix It
As head of an organization (the National Association of Scholars) that tries to stay sober when others are off popping champagne corks or drowning their sorrows, I feel obligated not to reach for either condemnation or endorsement until we see what the executive order actually says. But it is fair game to say what I’d like to see in the way of federal action on intellectual freedom in higher education. Part of this is philosophical. I’m no First Amendment absolutist. But part of it is practical. I know how colleges and universities work. First I’d like to see a policy that reflects:

  1. Recognition that the First Amendment doctrine of free speech has only limited applications to higher education. Free speech pertains to prohibitions on the government controlling what people can say. Much of higher education is made up of private colleges and universities. Moreover, all colleges and universities necessarily restrict expression. An academic course or a college classroom is not a free-for-all.
  2. Recognition that intellectual freedom, as distinct from free speech, is indispensable to higher education. Students and faculty members need to be free to think their own thoughts and express them in appropriate ways.
  3. Recognition that the reason we value intellectual freedom and freedom of expression is that they together contribute to the pursuit of truth. Intellectual freedom doesn’t guarantee that we will find the truth on a particular question. Such freedom often leads to mistakes or to powerfully held but false convictions. But without intellectual freedom and freedom of expression those mistakes and false convictions go unchallenged, unexamined, and unrefuted. To put this another way, intellectual freedom is a path, not a destination. The destination is discovering the truth.
  4. Recognition that institutions of higher education have a civic responsibility to foster the pursuit of truth, and to that end they need to uphold the kinds of intellectual freedom and freedom of expression that are aimed at truth-seeking.
  5. Recognition that there are ways of organizing intellectual freedom and freedom of expression that are hostile to truth-seeking. To declare that one’s mind is made up about something and one is no longer willing to hear criticism of one’s view is, in a sense, an act of intellectual freedom: freedom from having to consider contrary arguments or weigh evidence that contradicts the opinions one is seeking to protect. But that is not the kind of intellectual freedom that higher education should encourage. That is a misuse of intellectual freedom aimed at silencing debate.
  6. Recognition that attempts to silence the expression of views one dislikes are wrong. Likewise attempting to prevent the appointment of faculty members, the admission of students, or the inviting of speakers on the grounds that their ideas are offensive or traumatizing is not a legitimate exercise in freedom of thought or expression. Drawing the line between wrongful attempts to exclude unfavored views or the people who hold then, and legitimate attempts to uphold intellectual standards can be difficult. Colleges and universities should strive to be fair but also generous. The close calls go in favor of including the views that might otherwise go unheard.
  7. Recognition that the parts of higher education that most undermine intellectual freedom and freedom of expression are out of sight. The shout-downs and disinvitations are highly visible, and the social media mobbing of non-conforming faculty members and students is often seen by the public as well. But it is the decisions behind closed doors not to admit, invite, or hire; the decisions to create and fund one program and not another that are at the heart of the Left’s illiberal campus regime.

Beyond these seven points, I’d like to see a practical policy that is calibrated to the offenses and the contexts. There is no reason why the physics department at UC Berkeley should suffer a cut in funds merely because a non-student was punched by another non-student on university property. Universities can be and often are bad actors, but figuring out how to sanction them for repeated transgressions will require careful attention to who is actually responsible for the transgressions themselves and, separately, the cover-ups and excuses.

In the last few years we have learned a lot about which faculty members incite student mobs and we have learned even more about deans, provosts, and college presidents who temporize over illegal and dangerous student-led disruptions. The administrations that concede everything to the disruptive students, who meet flagrant violations with wrist slaps, or who even bestow honors and commendations of bad actors are the most culpable figures. An executive order that calls down severe sanctions on institutions led by people like these would be welcome. It would spur their boards of trustees to clean house.

And that, more than anything, would solve the problem that President Trump hopes to address.

As to the objection that his executive order would lack statutory authority: Nonsense. Title I of the Higher Education Act, passed in 1965 and still standing, Part B, Section 112, “Protection of Student Speech and Association Rights” stipulates:

(C) an institution of higher education should facilitate the free and open exchange of ideas;

(D) students should not be intimidated, harassed, discouraged from speaking out, or discriminated against; and

(E) students should be treated equally and fairly.

On that basis, I would say President Trump has plenty of room to run.

Photo Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

14 replies
  1. George LeS
    George LeS says:

    There is no reason why the physics department at UC Berkeley should suffer a cut in funds merely because a non-student was punched by another non-student on university property.

    If Berkeley is effectively encouraging such actions, and/or failing to do anything to prevent them, then there is EVERY reason the physics department should suffer. This argument sounds too much like “breaking grandma’s antique vase has nothing to do with whether I get to eat dessert for a week.” On the contrary, that is how punishments often work.

    • Brian Backes
      Brian Backes says:

      Response:
      ‘If Berkeley is effectively encouraging such actions, and/or failing to do anything to prevent them, then there is EVERY reason the physics department should suffer. This argument sounds too much like “breaking grandma’s antique vase has nothing to do with whether I get to eat dessert for a week.” On the contrary, that is how punishments often work.’

      My response:
      Moreover, punishing the physics department for misdeeds originating in the, say, wymens studies department will over time (over successive ‘punishment cycles’) give CLARITY to all parties. For that matter let us also punish the maths, chemistry, biology, medicine, engineering and agriculture departments.

      Several punishment cycles hence, the effete college Perfumed Aristocracy would face a hard choice. But a choice easily made. Absent real Meat the college would be revealed for all as the puffery it has become.

      Punish away, President Trump! (Paul Bunyan will be proud of you.)

  2. Walter Pazik
    Walter Pazik says:

    The solution is simple: No government participation in any educational institution, K12 included; all education should be private. Individuals are different (redundant) and therefore have different needs, and private educational entities more readily meet these individual needs: Some are adept at mechanics, some at the arts, some at the sciences, etc. This isn’t to say that a basic curriculum isn’t necessary (civics, American history, world history, English-only, etc.); it is. But, nevertheless, a free enterprise system will put America back as a preeminent educator, at a much lower cost than government’s cost (a failing system).

  3. An Observation
    An Observation says:

    “Recognition that attempts to silence the expression of views one dislikes are wrong.” It is more than wrong, it’s a federal felony. 18 U.S. Code 241:

    “If two or more persons conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same; or If two or more persons go in disguise on the highway, or on the premises of another, with intent to prevent or hinder his free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege so secured…”

    Punishable by 10 years in federal prison – up to, in aggravated circumstances, death. So not a “minor academic” crime.

  4. Jonah Kyle
    Jonah Kyle says:

    Before fixing, one must force the organizations to do the fixing. This is done by suing for massive amounts, just like L. Lin Wood is doing for Nick Sandmann, the kid in the Covington HS media debacle.

  5. JohnV2
    JohnV2 says:

    “Free speech pertains to prohibitions on the government controlling what people can say. Much of higher education is made up of private colleges and universities.”

    Any institution taking Federal money is not a private institution. Want to suppress disfavored speech? Do it on your own dime, not the Public’s.

  6. Bennie Sprouse
    Bennie Sprouse says:

    If a PRIVATE college decides it wants to be a communist community, then TREAT it like one!! No US TAXPAYERS’ funds should go to a college or ANY organization that does not allow FREE SPEECH! And I don’t mean the kind where you let someone come to speak AND allow disruptive forces to effectively cancel that speaker. I’ve long been a proponent of returning Student Loans BACK to the PRIVATE sector and REQUIRING colleges to use THEIR ENDOWMENT FUNDS to assist the students THEY desire! Any college with a BILLION dollar endowment should be able to invest at least 50% of that into student loans. THEN we’ll see how “valuable” they consider those womynz/black/intersectionality(whatever the hell that is) studies! Can you imagine what our Nation would be like today had the REPUBLICANS supported PRESIDENT TRUMP from the get go??

  7. Samuel E McGowan
    Samuel E McGowan says:

    The author makes a common mistake – he forgets that in the United States “the government” IS the people! The First Amendment address “CONGRESS,” which is made up of representatives of the people. James Madison and others who favored an amendment that became the First Amendment wished to prohibit specific groups from using Congress to inhibit those with whom they disagreed.

  8. JungleCogs
    JungleCogs says:

    Pro or con on any policy that may come of this… if universities take taxpayer money, they may be held to basic freedom standards as outlined in the Bill of Rights.

  9. aelfheld
    aelfheld says:

    “Much of higher education is made up of private colleges and universities.”

    Who, excepting Hillsdale College, take bucket-loads of taxpayer cash.

    Hence the Grove City College & Bob Jones University cases.

  10. kilroy
    kilroy says:

    If private universities can restrict speech, it is certainly their prerogative, BUT they can do it without our tax dollars. Unless it is in a national interest/defense research, tax dollars should not be in private higher ed. Public colleges that take tax money, MUST ensure that all opinions/views are freely expressed and protected. They can always reject our tax dollars and do their thing, so others can sue them.

  11. Unsk
    Unsk says:

    I’m sorry. Worrying about the effects of free speech on college campus, rather than worrying about the lack thereof is rather ridiculous at this point.

    The plain fact is that conservatives and the religious are horribly discriminated against in a multitude of ways on taxpayer funded college campuses and K-12 schools. Both students and teachers are told what to say and think, and so as result there is little freedom of speech or of thought. Kids are indoctrinated not taught to think for themselves but to believe without question the latest leftist narrative. Conservative and religious are are often simply not hired so there is an overwhelming bias in how classes are developed and taught.

    The Left has been allowed to use our taxpayer funded K-12 schools and college campuses as indoctrination centers to skew public opinion heavily in their direction to gain unyielding power. This is an abominable situation. Excuse me, but I believe there is this thing called the ‘Equal Protection Clause” in our Constitution which should have protected our children from such abuse and to which you have should have mentioned if you were serious and concerned about the children of this country. All rational points of view across the political spectrum should be represented in our classrooms in a fair and impartial way. That way our children can make up their mind for themselves, rather than being brainwashed to only believe in leftist ideas. to many of our kids can no longer think for themselves. Could it be that our indoctrination centers masquerading as schools are the cause for this?

    The rights of our children have been criminally abused over and over in a very disgusting way. To my mind every every administrator than has encouraged and engaged in this leftist brainwashing should be tried, convicted and put away for life for this horrid violation of the Constitutional rights of our kids and our society as a whole. .

  12. Brian Backes
    Brian Backes says:

    “There is no reason why the physics department at UC Berkeley should suffer a cut in funds merely because a non-student was punched by another non-student on university property.”

    Response:
    ‘If Berkeley is effectively encouraging such actions, and/or failing to do anything to prevent them, then there is EVERY reason the physics department should suffer. This argument sounds too much like “breaking grandma’s antique vase has nothing to do with whether I get to eat dessert for a week.” On the contrary, that is how punishments often work.’

    My response:
    Moreover, punishing the physics department for misdeeds originating in the, say, wymens studies department will over time (over successive ‘punishment cycles’) give CLARITY to all parties. For that matter let us also punish the maths, chemistry, biology, medicine, engineering and agriculture departments.

    Several punishment cycles hence, the effete college Perfumed Aristocracy would face a hard choice. But a choice easily made. Absent real Meat the college would be revealed for all as the puffery it has become.

    Punish away, President Trump! (Paul Bunyan will be proud of you.)

Comments are closed.