President Trump Focuses on Free Speech in Higher Ed with New Executive Order

Luciano Gonzalez
Staff Writer

PC: Democracy Chronicles

In the wake of his remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), President Trump has signed an executive order aimed at restricting access to federal research grants to universities that, “promote free inquiry,” on Thursday, March 21.

The Presidential order comes as a response to a concern of his, namely that many colleges and universities foster atmospheres that silence beliefs and the free-exchange of ideas in a battleground that doesn’t filter out ideas even if those ideas are considered socially taboo. His order was in essence a restatement of existing law, but also doesn’t spell out how exactly to enforce itself. According to Inside Higher Ed, “The executive order essentially directs federal agencies to ensure colleges are following requirements already in place. And it doesn’t spell out how enforcement of the order would work.”

What prompted this criticism of the order were administration officials not providing specific answers to questions by reporters. After remarks by a senior administration official, reporters knew that the March 21 order would be enforced in the same way that existing federal grant conditions are enforced, but were not told specific details about the order’s implementation.

Over the past few years, there have been a range of incidents at college campuses that result in speakers of a range of ideologies not being able to speak at events that had been arranged with clubs and campus administrators. Many of these events center around prominent conservative figures being prevented from speaking to college students at events ranging from commencement speeches to speaking to specific university clubs. Perhaps the most high-profile figures involved in these incidents are Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, Charles Murray and Ann Coulter, all four of whom are famous and well-known conservatives.   

That being said, the idea that this issue uniquely affects conservative speakers isn’t accurate. Left-wing, centrist and independent voices lose their platforms and opportunities to speak to college students in different ways than conservative speakers do. Sanford J. Ungar wrote an article in May, 2018 on Medium that shared a few non-conservative voices who lose their platforms. On that list is a Princeton professor Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who once criticized the president and afterwards had to cancel planned public speaking events after reportedly receiving death threats for the original comments she made.

Though Trump’s efforts aren’t aimed at this they do create an opportunity for institutions of higher education to fix a real problem affecting free speech on campus. Of a survey taken by 800 undergraduate students conducted by McLaughlin and Associates, a polling group led by Jim and John McLaughlin—pollsters who are known  for working with prominent Republican candidates for higher office—more than 400 students said they felt intimidated by their settings and couldn’t fully or honestly express themselves. Though the percentage was higher among conservative students, it wasn’t by a huge margin. 61 percent of conservative students felt intimidated, but 53 percent of liberal students also feel threatened by the institutions and faculty that they willingly work with.

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