Trump Requires Campus Free Speech. Students Speak Up

Trump Requires Campus Free Speech. Students Speak Up (President Donald J. Trump on stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March 2019. (Photo credit: Mike Licht/ Flickr))

President Trump recently signed an executive order that requires colleges to protect campus free speech in order to continue to receive federal funds. At the signing, he was joined by conservative students who felt that their free speech rights were threatened at their universities.

In a speech in front of the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, Trump pointed to the assault of conservative activist Hayden Williams at UC Berkeley in February as a reason for the order. Williams was tabling on campus for Turning Point USA, a conservative organization, when Zachary Greenberg allegedly knocked over his table and proceeded to punch him. The incident was quickly met with backlash from conservatives, who were disappointed with the delayed arrest of Greenberg.

However, neither Williams nor Greenberg are affiliated with UC Berkeley, according to the university. After the incident, campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof reaffirmed the university’s commitment to the First Amendment, writing, “Our commitment to freedom of speech and belief is unwavering.”

With this new executive order, the White House has waded into a years-long debate about free speech on campus, cultural appropriation, safe spaces and political diversity. How do students around the country feel? Here’s a sampling of what college journalists and opinion columnists are writing and reporting from around the country:

Conservatives should not be closeted

Many conservative college students have said they feel “closeted” at their hyper-liberal schools. In fear of being ostracized by their peers, these students have kept their political beliefs quiet.

Drew Alcorn, a freshman at Loyola Marymount University, articulated his frustrations in an interview with the Los Angeles Loyolan. Alcorn said, “One of the biggest issues is that in class, often both professors and students will make anti-conservative thought the accepted ‘truth,’ not opinion. It creates an environment where everyone seems either against you or complacent.”

Free exchange of ideas is vital to education

Many supporters of campus free speech point to colleges as space for students to become exposed to new ideas and open discussions. Ashley Vaughan, a University of Texas alum, wrote a guest column in her college paper, The Daily Texan, “Universities are places for debate, ideas, discussion and disagreement. Students who are never exposed to ideas they disagree with will learn nothing.” 

Protecting hate speech goes against school beliefs

Eastern Michigan University struggled with its own incidents with campus free speech this past December. A wall on campus that previously said “Together Against Antisemitism” was painted over and replaced with “Together Against Semitism” and later the phrase “it’s ok to be white.”

Many students felt that the white supremacist message contradicts their ideas of acceptance. Student and writer for The Eastern Echo Austin Elliott wrote, “This isn’t about censoring speech we don’t agree with. This is about protecting our community and making it clear that everyone is welcome here.”

Despite the range of student opinions on campus free speech, some higher education leaders are accusing President Trump of federal overreach. Association of Public and Land-grant Universities President Peter McPherson warned that under the free speech executive order, federal agencies could “strip or block federal research funding from universities they subjectively believe aren’t adequately permitting the diverse debate of ideas. While enforcement could be challenged in court, this executive order is deeply disturbing on many levels.”

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