In his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference over the weekend, President Donald Trump pledged to issue an executive order to protect campus free speech. Schools would be required “to support free speech” to receive federal research funding. No matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican, progressive or conservative, you should oppose this move. An order requiring higher education institutions to prove their commitment to free speech as a condition for funding is simply ideological bait for the president’s base, which will undermine the First Amendment rather than protect it.
Try to envision what this process would look like. The government would like to make sure that a certain campus is abiding by its vision of free speech. How will that be verified? Who will decide which campus is acting properly, and what will their criteria be? Will there be a direct reporting system to the government? This effort can quickly slide from an effort to defend the First Amendment into thought-police territory.
Trump’s plan is not entirely new. Bills in some states have aimed to block student protests, even though protest is a form of protected speech. Some bills, including ones in Texas and Arizona, focus on censoring criticism of Israel. In Canada, the conservative provincial government in Ontario requires that universities develop free speech policies, leading most to endorse cookie-cutter policy that does little to change campus culture or practice.
Taken together, these steps might not be an effort to protect free speech, but rather an attempt to create environments that are more hospitable to certain ideas — notably conservative ones. In his speech, President Trump highlighted an altercation between two activists — neither of them students — on the Berkeley campus, during which the conservative activist was assaulted.
Such an incident is uncommon, and to a large extent irrelevant to the larger free speech debate, which typically involves peaceful exchanges. But it’s used as fodder for the claim that campuses are liberal bastions that attack and undermine conservative ideas and people.
On some campuses, conservative students feel that their views are underrepresented or shunned, and this is a concern campuses should address, as many already do. Conservative students — like all students — should feel valued and know that their contributions are assessed on merit and their voices heard. Campuses work to include and respond to various minorities, including those who deserve special protections, such as racial and ethnic minorities, sexual and gender minorities, or religious minorities. Ideology does not deserve the same protections, because it should remain a matter of independent choice and affiliation, not a fixed identity. But campuses can continue to do more to respond to claims of silencing from conservative students, too. There are just better ways to do so than threatening a thought police that will withhold funding based on vague, restrictive standards.
Instead, colleges can publicly set expectations for open dialogue, maintain public accountability through existing channels, and monitor themselves. If you look at the data, they are doing pretty well — for instance, efforts to disinvite or “deplatform” speakers are significantly down this year. There is surely room for improvement in the ways schools respond to speech challenges, such as bigotry expressed on campus or online, or rare instances of ideological biases that actually affect teaching. But higher education’s commitment to free speech remains unwavering — it’s the means by which we conduct research, advance knowledge, and support students as they prepare for their jobs and civic roles. Executive actions based on bullying will do little to promote these goals.
Sigal Ben-Porath is professor of Education, Philosophy and Political Science at Penn, and author of Free Speech on Campus (Penn Press 2017).