On March 21st, 2019, Donald Trump signed an executive order at the White House meant to, according to its text, “encourage institutions to foster environments that promote open, intellectually engaging, and diverse debate, including thorough compliance with the First Amendment for public institutions and compliance with stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech for private institutions.” In attendance were Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Turning Point USA leader Charles Kirk, and several college students from across the country who claimed to have been marginalized by staff for advocating for conservative values.
This order will be enforced through the withholding of “Federal Research and Education Grants” from campuses deemed to not to promote “free inquiry, including through compliance with all applicable Federal laws, regulations, and policies.”
The executive order will not impact, according to the text, “funding associated with Federal student aid programs that cover tuition, fees, or stipends.”
This Executive Order, on the surface, is about protecting students’ rights to free speech, but put into context, it stands to benefit right-wing ideologies on College campuses more than anything else. Several studies indicate that the need for the White House to step in and create this legislation is exaggerated. While a Gallup-Knight Foundation Survey in March of 2018 does indicate that College students’ confidence in their right to free speech has declined since 2016, the number of cases where Colleges attempted to disinvite guest speakers has also dropped. Also, in 2018, the number of faculty dismissals for expressing conservative opinions versus liberal opinions were virtually the same.
The vague language in the actual text of the Executive Order also makes it difficult to determine whose free speech will be protected, and what constitutes a violation of this free speech. The terms “open, intellectually engaging, and diverse debate” does not include any specific examples, as well as does not make any exceptions for cases of language regarding racist language or anti-Semitism. The language of the policy also does not specify what this disruption actually entails.
It is also worth noting that one of the primary driving forces behind the creation of this executive order was Turning Point USA, whose self-proclaimed mission is “to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government.” The organization has been known, according to Vox, to engage in such activities as “dressing students in diapers to protest safe spaces [and bringing] intentionally inflammatory speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos to provoke their left-wing opponents.” The organization’s leader, Charles Kirk, was present in the audience at the signing of the Executive Order, as well as Kaitlyn Mullan, a University of Nebraska student, whom Trump claimed “was approached by staff and a graduate instructor, and was berated and cursed at” for staffing a table for Turning Point USA. Kirk himself said is the Order was the “culmination of Turning Point USA’s tireless work to break the left’s stranglehold on campus, a grip that has suffocated the free exchange of ideas and helped indoctrinate an entire generation to hate America, the freest, most prosperous, decent and generous country ever to exist.” The fact that a heavily right-leaning organization backed the bill is a red flag for the bill’s true intentions.
- Association of Public and Land Grant Universities – “The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) is a research, policy, and advocacy organization dedicated to strengthening and advancing the work of public universities in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The association’s membership consists of 242 public research universities, land-grant institutions, state university systems, and affiliated organizations. “
- Foundation for Individual Rights in Education -”FIRE protects the rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience—the essential qualities of liberty for every American. FIRE defends those whose rights are denied on campus, regardless of identity or viewpoint, and we educate those on and off campus about these rights and their importance.”
Photo by Amanda Lins