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EDITORIAL: Executive order has potential problems

Issue of free speech on campus is in part manufactured for political gain

An eruption of applause and cheers from conservative activists, clad in “Make America Great Again” merchandise, followed President Donald J. Trump’s announcement that he will make federal funding for universities conditional on their support of freedom of speech. No further announcements or policy outlines have been publicly released after Trump said that he “will be signing an executive order requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research dollars” at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

What may prove to be hollow words meant to perpetuate the feeling of conservative victimhood and persecution, such an executive order would be riddled with potential problematic repercussions sliding the nation down the slippery slope of governmental suppression. Trump’s announcement comes in the wake of an event at the University of California, Berkeley campus in which a non-student, conservative activist was punched in the face by someone unaffiliated with the university while tabling. School officials were quick to respond to the altercation, issuing a statement transparently disclosing the steps that were taken to address the incident.

University officials included a list of prominent conservative speakers that have been hosted by campus organization without protest or incidental issues, and said: “In the last year alone, this University spent more than $4 million to ensure that our conservative students could safely and successfully hold events on campus and invite speakers of their choice to these events.” 

An executive order is unnecessary, as public universities are already bound by the First Amendment. 

There is potential for Orwellian repercussions if this executive order is recklessly crafted. Jonathan Friedman, project director for campus free speech for PEN American Center, said that “policies designed to improve the climate for free speech, if they are not carefully crafted, can have the unintended effect of curtailing it.”

The way in which this order would actually be enforced is unclear, but the possibility of a report system of violations brings up the problem of who would verify the validity of the reports as well as whether a committee would have oversight, acting as a faux thought-police entity. 

The announcement is in line with the narrative that a widespread wave of political correctness has washed over campuses across the country, neutralizing dissenting opinion and suppressing conservative thought. But this wave’s existence has no statistical evidence of proof. Beyond the anecdotal examples, colleges have been shown to fulfill its purpose of exposing students to new, conflicting ideas.

Studies have generally shown that public support for free expression, including that of racism and hate, has been rising. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the American Council on Education, the Charles Koch Foundation and the Stanton Foundation found that college students have been shown to be in even more opposition to restrictions on speech than the general public. Attending college has been shown to have a causal relationship with more open-mindedness to opposing beliefs, according to data from the College Senior Survey (CSS). In fact, some studies have actually found that there is existent suppression of more Left speech, as Left-wing professors were more frequently dismissed for their speech than Right-wing ones.

This supposed crisis of speech on college campuses is considered overblown, as Georgetown University’s Free Speech Project suggested in its data analysis. Researchers catalogued more than 90 events in which freedom of speech was under threat since 2016, with two-thirds of those incidents occurring on college campuses. There is little evidence that conservatives make up a disproportionate amount of those targeted. With 4,583 colleges and universities in America, including two- and four-year institutions, only approximately 60 events in two years indicates that such incidents do not define campus life and are not systematic, but rather they are simply rare events.  

“Most of the incidents where presumptively conservative speech has been interrupted or squelched in the last two or three years seem to involve the same few speakers: Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, Charles Murray and Ann Coulter ,” said Sanford Ungar, the the Free Speech Project's director. “In some instances, they seem to invite, and delight in, disruption.”

Trump’s announced intent on signing an executive order to address a manufactured crisis in which conservative student groups invite speakers widely known for their offensive, divisive and racist speech in the hope of provoking those with more Left ideologies is an unnecessary measure with potentially harmful repercussions.  


The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 151st editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff. 

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