Just last month, President Trump signed an executive order that would basically require colleges and universities across the country guaranteed free speech for students from all political viewpoints. Colleges that do not abide by the executive order run the risk of having their federal aid reduced or withheld entirely.
The executive order comes in response to the long-standing debate over free speech on college campuses. Some believe that students should be protected from speakers who promote racist, misogynistic and homophobic ideologies. While those that are strong proponents of the First Amendment, believe such restrictions deprive students of the right to hear opposing viewpoints that could bridge gaps across political parties and lead to greater understanding.
President Trump signed the order at a special ceremony in the White House. After signing before a crowd of conservative student organizations he said, “Now you have a president that is fighting for you. I am with you all the way. Universities that want taxpayer dollars should promote free speech, not silence free speech.”
The college free speech debate has been a highly contested issue since the late 80’s but it all came to a catalyst in 2017 when UC Berkeley canceled ‘Free Speech Week, a series of on-campus speaking engagements lead by right-wing political agitator and ex-Breitbart editor, Milo Yiannopoulos.
A letter was sent out to the UC Berkeley campus community on behalf of more than 200 professors and faculty members that called for a boycott of ‘Free Speech Week’. The letter stated canceling the speaking appearances would protect students from potentially entering an “environment of harassment, intimidation, violence, and militarized policing”. A series of protests broke out across campus that ultimately lead to the cancellation of the event altogether.
A current UC Berkeley student and community organizer for Hermanas Unidas, Lily Kaepernik, says ‘Free Speech Week’ only created a hostile learning environment on campus. “Everybody was just so angry,” said Kaepernik. “This was supposed to be our space.”
Kaepernik recalls her organization Hermanas Unidas and other student lead Latinx groups felt that ‘Free Speech Week’ threatened their safety as undocumented students under the Dream Act.
“I remember that week there was a lot of police in riot gear on campus”, said Kaepernik. “There’s a lot of undocumented students here and our students in general are very politically engaged. They just felt targeted by their presence and honestly we were all scared.”
This was when President Trump first publicly spoke out against the college censorship of conservative voices. In true presidential fashion, he tweeted out a response to the event being canceled that stated, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — no federal funds?” He later went on to state UC Berkeley was intentionally stifling conservative voices and imposing total conformity “under the guise of speech codes, safe spaces and trigger warnings.”
While it’s so important to hear voices from across the political spectrum, a new study by the Gallup-Knight Foundation, revealed the deeper problem with inclusivity and how it’s not as easy as the racially diverse friend group on the college brochures make it seem. The study says groups that are least supportive of free speech on college campuses are democrats, African Americans and women. With more than 50% of the people surveyed favoring diversity and inclusion over free speech. To put it in black and white, no pun intended (kinda), the students surveyed have some very conflicting viewpoints in which they favor inclusivity but not if it conflicts with their liberal viewpoints. Problematic? Maybe. But, again, it’s not that simple.
Andrew Di Giovanni is a member of Young Americans for Liberty, a conservative student lead group focusing on the freedom of individual rights and education, and no stranger to the college free speech phenomenon.
While recruiting for his organization on Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley, Di Giovanni and a fellow team member were reprimanded by the administration because they were not inside the campuses’ free speech zone. Additionally, the two ran the risk of being kicked off campus for not having permission to hand out flyers.
“Our organization has seen it dozens of times,” said Di Giovanni. “My direct supervisor in this organization was at a community college in Michigan and he was actually arrested and put in jail for a night for handing out pocket constitutions on Constitution Day.”
While this story serves as great example of unjust censorship of conservative voices, this isn’t the type of speech minority groups are worried about. If we take a short trip down memory lane and recall the events that took place in Charlottesville in 2017, we’ll get a better look at how speech can often lead to tiki-torch fueled rage. What started as an organized protest quickly turned to an alt-right rally that left several people in the hospital. However, speech that insights violence is already protected by the Constitution. So, is there a happy medium between free speech and complete censorship? According to the American Civil Liberties Union, there may be.
If you’re not familiar, the ACLU is a non-profit organization that has long been committed to protecting the individual rights of all people guaranteed by the Constitution. The organization’s website states, “An open society depends on liberal education, and the whole enterprise of liberal education is founded on the principle of free speech.”
The ACLU believes a balance between the need for inclusion and the right to free speech will ultimately be the solution to put the college free speech debate to rest. As stated on the ACLU site, “colleges and universities have to step up their efforts to recruit diverse faculty, students, and administrators; increase resources for student counseling; and raise awareness about bigotry and its history.”
The Trump administration ensures the executive order is meant to uphold the standards of the right to free speech for all people and all groups. “Schools are already supposed to be following these rules,” said a senior Trump administration official. “And essentially, each agency already conditions grants, and schools are certifying that they’re following these conditions. And they will just add free speech as one of those conditions.”