Opinion | Trump’s executive order for free speech is ineffective


Olivier Douliery | TNS

President Donald Trump before signing an executive order to require colleges and universities to “support free speech” on campus or risk losing federal research funds.

By Hayden Timmins, Staff Columnist

Free speech is an integral part of American culture and law. So when university campuses attempt to stifle discussions, it’s understandable that there is considerable backlash.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on March 21 that attempted to combat the increasing effort by college administrations to limit the First Amendment on campuses. While this executive order is a step in the right direction, the actual consequences of it are miniscule. The order states that the government can withhold federal funds if the school is deemed to have violated the First Amendment, but it offers no specific way of determining this.

Free inquiry is an essential feature of our Nation’s democracy, and it promotes learning, scientific discovery, and economic prosperity,” the order reads. “We must encourage institutions to appropriately account for this bedrock principle in their administration of student life and to avoid creating environments that stifle competing perspectives, thereby potentially impeding beneficial research and undermining learning.”

Under the order, colleges must affirm that they are following the First Amendment as well as their stated policies, which they must already do to receive federal funding. If Trump really wanted to take action, a more effective executive order would specify which policies would lead to cutting federal funds.

There are plenty of examples of college campuses attempting to violate free speech, including the infamous “free expression areas,” which confine public speaking and demonstrations to specific areas at specific times. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed lawsuits against many of these campuses, including Arkansas State University, in an attempt to combat measures to restrict free speech.

When an Arkansas State student set up a table in front of the student union, which was outside of the free expression area, to gather signatures in an attempt to start a campus chapter of Turning Point USA, the school demanded that she stop and the police were called. Another person working with the student was issued a criminal trespass warning.

Kentucky, Arizona, Missouri and Virginia have all passed legislation banning free expression areas in colleges. But one in 10 colleges nationwide still maintain free expression area policies.

Another major issue is the “heckler’s veto,” in which a group attempts to suppress a public speaking event because of negative reactions. Pitt students may recognize the heckler’s veto after the University drew criticism for charging the Young America’s Foundation and College Republicans a $5,546.52 security fee two days before conservative speaker Ben Shapiro was set to appear at Pitt. The Alliance Defending Freedom, the law firm that represented YAF, issued an open letter accusing Pitt of attempting to stifle free speech, as the University refused to host Shapiro if the fee was not payed. Pitt later rescinded the fee.

“Speech isn’t free if the speaker can be forced to pay money simply because somebody may object,” ADF senior council Jonathan Larcomb said in an ADF press release. “The Supreme Court has specifically stated that security fees, such as the ones Pitt has assessed, aren’t constitutionally permissible.”

The Supreme Court ruling ADF is referencing is Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement. This ruling states that varying fees cannot be charged based on the content of the speech and the reaction it could illicit.

“Listeners’ reaction to speech is not a content-neutral basis for regulation,” the ruling reads. “Speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.”

ADF also suggested that the security fee was specifically designed to prevent Shapiro from speaking. Pitt implemented the fee two days before the event, and ADF claims the school was also in breach of its contract with YAF.

“The contract stat[es] that the ‘University will provide all house personnel necessary for the Event,” the letter reads. “This includes all ushers, ticket takers and security personnel deemed necessary by the University.”

These policies are fueled by a desire of students to foster an inclusive environment. A study by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that a majority of students believe promoting an inclusive society that is welcoming to diverse groups is more important than freedom of speech. The willingness to prioritize diversity quickly leads to sacrificing free speech to uphold those values.

This is shown in the study, as 64 percent of students believe that the First Amendment shouldn’t protect hate speech, 30 percent believe campuses should prohibit some politically oriented speech and 10 percent believe it is acceptable to use violence to prevent someone from speaking.

Restricting free speech isn’t an uncommon problem. A report by the Foundation for Economic Education found that nine in 10 colleges restrict free speech in some way, usually in an attempt to limit harassment. Vague language in university rules can instead lead to limiting speech that people do not agree with, instead of speech that is not protected under the First Amendment, such as fighting words, which are words that incite or cause violence.

“[F]ar too many colleges across the country fail to live up to their free speech obligations in policy and in practice,” the report reads. “Often, this occurs through the implementation of speech codes: university policies that restrict expression that is protected under First Amendment standards.”

In the report, Pitt received a yellow light rating. The report views a yellow light institution as one “whose policies restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.”

With a large number of students believing that free speech should be restricted in some ways, Trump has a responsibility to uphold the First Amendment by not supporting colleges that restrict free speech, but by signing an ineffective executive order, he is falling short of his responsibility.

Hayden primarily writes about politics for The Pitt News. Write to Hayden at [email protected].