Earlier this month, a heckler disrupted a College Republicans event at Portland State University in Oregon. The heckler walked around the room ringing a cowbell for an hour and blocked the projector for the speaker’s presentation, before leaving of his own accord. President Trump referred to this incident last Thursday when he signed an Executive Order intended to protect free speech on campus. Several students whose free expression had been infringed were at the signing ceremony, including Kaitlyn Mullen who was working a table for Turning Point USA at the University of Nebraska when school officials tried to bully her into leaving. She refused.
Under the Order, “federal agencies will use their authority under various grant-making programs to ensure that public universities protect, cherish ... the First Amendment and First Amendment rights of their students, or risk losing billions and billions of ... federal taxpayer dollars,” President Trump said. “We will not stand idly by and allow public institutions to violate their students’ constitutional rights. If a college or university doesn’t allow you to speak, we will not give them money. It’s very simple,” he went on to say.
Well, it might not be that simple. Critics have pointed out several potential pitfalls. Some critics say the data show the number of incidents threatening free speech on campus is small and declining. Other critics say the Order is merely symbolic and will have no real-world effect because it only requires schools to do what they are already supposed to be doing to promote free inquiry and uphold their own stated policies about free speech. It may have been written that way because the federal government cannot place conditions on federal grants unless Congress explicitly states those conditions in a statute. As you may recall, this is what prevented the Trump administration from placing conditions on federal grants to sanctuary cities.
Others say, however, that this is federal overreach that could lead to federal micro-management of cutting edge research. Some worry that academic freedom will be politicized and compromised.
A respected group that takes scalps in campus free speech cases pointed out that it’s not clear how federal agencies will enforce the Order and enforcement actions could very well conflict with the First Amendment. This group is called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and is commonly known as FIRE.
Finally, a student journalist at a religious school in Ohio worries that, if future administrations continue the Order, it will be used to require the expression of ideas on campus that run counter to the teachings of religious institutions.
The Order will likely be challenged in court when schools start losing money, so stay tuned for that. Also, the Order may encourage the strengthening of campus free speech laws that have passed at the state level in recent years and, further, prompt other states to enact similar laws of their own.