Free speech on college campuses has long been a divisive issue. As the debate over what speech should and should not be allowed on college campuses has become increasingly complex, it has also quickly become a tool for politicians to pander to their audiences. The latest politician to address this issue? President Donald Trump.
On March 21, President Trump signed an executive order intended to uphold and protect First Amendment rights on college campuses by threatening to withhold “billions and billions of dollars of federal taxpayer dollars” from universities. President Trump stated at the signing of this order, “We will not stand idly by and allow public institutions to violate their students’ constitutional rights.” However, he did not state how he plans to combat this problem. Furthermore, without any clear method of implementation, this order does little to support students’ free speech rights on college campuses. If anything, this executive order reinforces what is already expected of universities but in a clearly partisan light.
This executive order is a largely ineffective measure to take on protecting students’ rights because rather than providing a clear course of action for universities to take to ensure students’ free speech rights, it offers a vague, partisan political statement.
For one thing, the order only restates something college campuses are already required to do. Universities, like any institution, are already expected to adhere to the First Amendment. Of course, it’s a constitutional amendment, but many universities, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln among them, have adopted free speech policies to further ensure students’ First Amendment rights. And while colleges like UNL and the University of California-Berkeley could use some direction in ensuring students’ free speech is protected, the order doesn’t explain how it differs from the rules universities are already expected to follow.
Another shortcoming of this order is that it does not provide a specific plan of action to address the problems President Trump claims are plaguing campuses, such as that universities, “have tried to restrict free thought and impose conformity,” a statement that has both an accusatory spirit and little substance. The order threatens universities’ funding if they do not protect students’ rights, but how does the Trump administration plan to enforce this? Measuring how well a university protects First Amendment rights will likely be a complicated and controversial task. The executive order places the task of enforcing this order on 12 federal agencies that currently allocate funds to universities, including the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation, but does not provide specific instructions or criteria for how these agencies will determine whether universities are complying with this executive order. Without an explicit objective, the parameters and limitations of this executive order will likely be left up to interpretation.
Without any clear parameters for how to enforce the president’s vague order, it’s clear the order is not intended to be a metric for universities to ensure they safeguard students’ rights. Rather, it’s nothing more than an obviously partisan political statement.
At the signing of the executive order, President Trump specifically praised the students present for “challenging rigid, far-left ideology.” President Trump also invited college students to the signing of this executive order, among them Kaitlyn Mullen of UNL. Notably, every student present at this signing claimed to have been ostracized for conservative viewpoints they held. President Trump had also unveiled his initial plan for instituting this order at the Conservative Political Action Conference. This combination conveys the message that free speech is important, but more specifically, conservative free speech is important. This partisan order is only contributing to the political polarization so evident in contemporary politics. Divides between the Democratic and Republican parties are the deepest they have been in two decades. President Trump’s address of the need for protection of free speech specifically for students with conservative views, rather than for all students, only furthers the polarization between groups that is characteristic of today’s political climate.
This isn’t to say college campuses don’t face issues with free speech. UNL specifically had an issue in 2017 that resulted in a lecturer being removed, and students and professors at campuses across the country say they don’t feel comfortable expressing unpopular views. Wanting universities to facilitate healthy and diverse conversations on college campuses is admirable. However, this goal cannot simply be spoken into existence. An issue such as the protection of students’ First Amendment rights should be addressed with proposed solutions that contain specific courses of action, not just vague political statements.
Overall, President Trump’s goal of protecting students’ First Amendment rights seems commendable. However, the grandiose presentation of this executive order is deceiving because of the lack of substance to this order and its partisan nature. Universities do face free speech issues, but the signing of this executive order is not the way to solve the problem.