In the rabbit hole of current American politics, what’s up is down, what’s normal is perverse, and what seems inarguable on the surface is a trap for the gullible. So, when the President of the United States who has, time and again, shown only the grossest hostility to the First Amendment — as just a few examples, calling the free press the “enemy of the people,” banning “climate change” and “global warming” from the EPA website, demanding retribution against Colin Kaepernick and NFL players who protested police brutality, saying that satire on Saturday Night Live ‘should be looked into’ and not in a friendly way — when this same president makes a clarion call at a conservative political event to impose his idea of freedom of speech on college campuses, we need to pay attention to the real meaning of this threat.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference over the weekend, President Trump said he intends to issue an executive order compelling colleges and universities to protect freedom of speech or risk losing federal research funding. In what can only be termed a legal oxymoron, the president intends to use executive authority to impose coercive economic sanctions on universities that do not comply with his version of what constitutes freedom of speech. The very idea of a presidential edict makes a mockery of academic freedom. The impetus for this misguided abuse of power is NOT some even-handed well-meaning effort to reinforce the First Amendment, but rather, a clear effort to force certain kinds of political speech onto college campuses, which, in and of itself, is an offense against the fundamental freedom of the university. (We might also observe that the First Amendment, itself, is a pretty powerful Constitutional right that does not need an executive order to ensure its effectiveness.)
Like everything else these days, this is about left-right politics. Conservatives complain that conservative speakers are threatened, harassed, assaulted, and otherwise unwelcome on campus — but they are silent in the face of blatant racism, homophobia, disparagement of women and other forms of degrading treatment of persons on campus. They get apoplectic at the use of gender-neutral language, using the bludgeon “political correctness” to trash institutions that insist on a modicum of cordiality and politeness extended to everyone regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and other personal characteristics. Certainly, whether conservative or liberal, Trumpist or Bernie Bro, everyone should be allowed to speak on campus, but the speech should be rational, truthful and not a forum for hatred and violence.
The President of the University of Chicago Robert Zimmer has already responded to President Trump’s statement, calling it a “grave error” for the president to interfere with the fundamental rights and duties of universities to impose his own view of freedom of speech. Far from protecting freedom of speech, wrote Zimmer, an executive order would chill it immeasurably and open up the specter of government bureaucrats deciding who may or may not speak on a college campus. We have enough of federal regulation already to know that there will be thousands of pages issuing from negotiated rulemaking over the definition of “hate” in “hate speech” if this comes to pass. The whole idea that we are trying to educate our students to be effective, rational, persuasive advocates for whatever cause they espouse gets lost in the political cacophony. Universities must have the freedom to ensure a robust climate for freedom of speech in ways that make the most sense for each university environment.
Higher education is the great counterweight to government in a free society, and we must be places that honor and practice academic, intellectual and expressive freedom to the greatest extent possible. Indeed, the willingness of universities to indulge the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment sometimes lead to forms of expression that people find objectionable, rash, outlandish, or distasteful — and these objections range across the entire spectrum of political, religious and secular belief and taste. I see a work of art and you see a scandal, that’s how it goes with freedom of expression. The whole idea of the university is to permit freedom of expression as a means to explore, discover and illuminate truth. Academic freedom is the bedrock of our work — and that freedom is polluted if the government dictates how we use our freedom. (Commentators have also already noted that many religiously-affiliated colleges would find an executive order dictating free speech problematic because many religions impose restrictions on free speech on campuses already, including the President’s cherished Liberty University. Whether an institution can be a robust university while also adhering to religious free speech limitations is a great question that the Catholic colleges have debated for many years.)
Freedom of speech is not absolute, and at times, the efforts of universities to establish parameters for expression have caused controversy. “In the old days” meaning when I was a student in the early 1970’s, during the Vietnam protest era, policies governing the “time, manner, place” of what we termed “disruptive demonstrations” came into fashion. The rules did not say we could not protest, but not in the middle of class or in ways that were loud or dangerous. We students often chafed under the rules, and sometimes broke them deliberately, but we learned how to express ourselves well and persuasively within the boundaries, a great lesson learned that serves many of us effectively even today. Similar policies exist today to protect the safety and welfare of campus communities, and these are reasonable rules to make sure that controversial speakers do not wind up inciting violence. Some speech does cross the line, not because of disagreement with the political position but because of the expression of hate that leads to violence. While reasonable people accept these rules, some politicians point to the rules as examples of ways that universities suppress the speech of a perceived conservative minority on campus.
In fact, universities today are well aware of the tensions that exist in the larger political and social communities, and we try to find ways to explore the issues with all voices appropriately represented, but also making sure that the campus remains free from violence and fear. Colleges and universities also have every right to make sure that speakers are truthful, and that any given speech contributes to the advancement of higher learning which is the purpose of the academy. I have no obligation to give a platform to someone who denies science any more than I would allow someone to teach that the earth is flat. We have no obligation to turn every auditorium over to every carnival barker who rolls into town — but that’s what President Trump’s executive order will do, removing any sensible academic or intellectual judgment about the safety, truth and learning value of the event. The University President is thence reduced to a concierge doing nothing more important than scheduling rooms for speeches and making sure the sound system is working and there’s water on the speaker’s podium. (Do I hear cheering for that thought? And don’t forget parking…)
The President of the United States should not dictate the decisions that the President of the University makes based on the soundest local information and advice on his or her own campus. In a functioning democracy, the President of the United States would not interfere in such a heavy-handed way with the governance and management of individual institutions. The threat to use executive authority in this way is one more example of the rise of authoritarianism which, if left unchecked, will damage the great institutions that give meaning and purpose to our free society.