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Trump promises order on campus free speech 'very soon,' offers few details

President Donald Trump looks to the cheering audience as he arrives to speak at Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md., Saturday, March 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Donald Trump’s promise Saturday to sign an executive order requiring colleges and universities that receive federal research grants to protect free speech delighted his supporters, but it left many educators and organizations that represent colleges puzzled regarding how it would work and what problem it is intended to solve.

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump brought Hayden Williams, an activist who was assaulted recently at the University of California-Berkeley, onstage and claimed he took a punch “for all of us.” The president said he would sign an executive order “very soon” that requires schools to support free speech if they want research funds.

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“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,” Trump said.

The White House has released no additional information on the content or timing of such an order, but some media reports indicated a draft does exist.

“This is actually a disturbing trend I’ve been noticing across different schools. There’s a culture that’s harbored that very hostile to conservative viewpoints and anyone that would openly express those on campus,” Williams, a field representative for the Leadership Institute, told Sinclair in an interview last week.

According to Williams, two men approached him “rather aggressively and erratically” while he was recruiting for the Berkeley campus chapter of conservative organization Turning Point USA.

“The guy flips over the table and starts pushing me and punching me and knocks the phone out of my hand several times. It was just a really scary situation,” he said of one of them.

University of California police believe they have identified that man as Zachary Greenberg, who was arrested Friday and could face assault and vandalism charges over the incident. According to Campus Reform, Greenberg worked at the university as a lab assistant for a few months in 2010 and was briefly a non-degree-seeking student, but he has no apparent current affiliation with the school.

“This is a big step in the right direction as far as making sure everyone has a right to voice their opinions on campus and they don’t have to abide by these arbitrary codes,” Williams said of the promised executive order on “Fox and Friends” Sunday.

Many of the president’s supporters applauded his announcement. Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk called it “the moment I’ve been waiting for.”

“For the president to step in on this and bring not just the law but attention to what is going on within our university system can be a complete game-changer,” he said in a Fox News op-ed.

Many questions remain about the order, though, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which tracks alleged liberal bias on campuses and claims more than 400 schools have policies that limit speech, was hesitant to embrace it sight unseen.

“While we are glad that this important national issue has the President’s attention, we do not currently have any more information on the details of the executive order. We are looking forward to learning more about this initiative in the coming days,” the organization said in a statement Saturday.

Other conservatives have warned empowering the federal government to decide if schools are sufficiently supportive of the First Amendment could have unintended consequences when Democrats are in power.

“We always need to keep in mind the old rule about exercising caution when granting the government more power when they do something we like. Sooner or later someone else will be in charge and they’ll then use that authority to frustrate us,” wrote Jazz Shaw of Hot Air.

Organizations that represent colleges and universities have had a harsher response. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said public research universities are already obligated by the Constitution to protect free speech.

“An executive order is unnecessary as public research universities are already bound by the First Amendment, which they deeply respect and honor,” McPherson said in a statement.

Barmak Nassirian, director of federal policy for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, disputed the severity of the crisis the president is trying to address.

“Obviously, the renewal of what we used to call the culture wars has created a lot of atmospheric concern about freedom of speech, but the fact is that colleges do their very best to provide open forums for exchange of ideas,” he said. “It’s very challenging to understand exactly what the specific problem is.”

Nassirian said educators he has spoken with are mostly confused by Trump’s comments. Pointing to incidents like the neo-Nazi march at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 2017 that devolved into violence, he also stressed schools need to balance their responsibility to protect free speech with their responsibility to protect their students.

“The reason sometimes institutions don’t allow certain events to take place is not necessarily any content objection but concerns about safety,” he said.

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, accused Trump and others in his administration of perpetuating a “false crisis narrative” that is fueling mistrust of higher education.

“The concern is with the vagueness of the proposal and the ways in which there’s been disparate attention paid to places like Berkeley and the criticism they’ve received,” Pasquerella said.

She observed the White House has been silent on efforts by conservative legislatures in places like Kansas and Indiana to restrict liberal speech on campus, and the administration has opposed research on subjects like gun violence, climate change, and fetal stem cells.

“If the goal really is the unfettered pursuit of the truth, the government should be willing to support that unfettered pursuit of the truth,” she said.

Pasquerella also questioned how any of this applies to Trump’s example of the assault on Hayden Williams. He was an outside conservative activist allowed on Berkeley’s campus to promote his views freely. He was allegedly accosted by a man with no current ties to the university who was later arrested by university police to face multiple criminal charges stemming from the incident.

“What could [Berkeley] have done?... In what ways were they negligent?” she asked.

In a 2018 article in the journal National Affairs, two American Enterprise Institute scholars laid out a few potential paths to ensuring colleges that receive federal research dollars promote “free inquiry.” Frederick Hess and Grant Addison argued institutions that receive federal research grants should be “contractually bound” to safeguard free speech and eliminate policies that “restrict, chill, or punish” speech.

While legislative action by Congress would be the easiest route, they claimed an executive order could be modeled after President Barack Obama’s 2009 memorandum requiring federal agencies to modify policies to reflect principles of scientific integrity. Alternately, heads of agencies that fund research could begin including protections for free speech in their contracts with universities.

However it is accomplished, Hess and Addison recommended such a measure include three requirements:

  1. To be eligible for grants, colleges and universities must offer assurances that they do not restrict constitutionally-protected speech, engage in viewpoint discrimination, or constrain free inquiry.
  2. Institutions must commit to protecting free inquiry and addressing any policies that hinder scholarly independence.
  3. Schools found in violation of these commitments may be expected to refund the balance of federal funds awarded or become ineligible for future funding.

Hess and Addison also called for grant-receiving colleges to establish formal processes for investigations and appeals of allegations of speech suppression or intellectual intimidation, possibly by using the same systems they currently use to probe claims of research misconduct.

Although he has doubts about the effectiveness, necessity, and legality of such an approach, Nassirian said schools do not object the ostensible goal of ensuring speech is protected on campuses.

“We don’t approach this with any level of defensiveness. The university is supposed to be a forum for the free exchange of ideas,” he said.

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