Trump's Free Speech Order Could Backfire

Trump's Free Speech Order Could Backfire
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Trump’s newly-signed executive order on college free speech responds to a real and profound problem. 

The thuggish intolerance and ideological one-sidedness in academia cannot be overstated.   Student enforcers punish deviation from identity victimology through shaming and aggression.  All but the bravest dissenters stay silent, lest their heresies be anonymously reported to a bias response team and subjected to correction.  The diversity bureaucracy and its faculty and administrative allies encourage students to believe that they are at existential threat from circumambient racism and sexism, defined as insufficiently conformist speech.  This supposed threat is wholly fictional, yet it is being used as grounds for silencing alternative points of view. 

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The university’s attacks on due process and on the norms of rational discourse threaten the very possibility of a civil society.  Yet Trump’s executive order may create as many difficulties as it would solve.  The order commands 12 federal agencies, from the Department of Defense to the EPA, to ensure that academic recipients of federal largesse “promote free inquiry” or risk losing their federal grants.   Promoting free inquiry is an affirmative duty that on its face goes beyond protecting free speech.  Unless we are to regard this language as boilerplate, the federal agencies will have to define what satisfies the duty to promote free inquiry and what constitutes its violation. The Education Department’s recently proposed regulation on campus rape tribunals drew on a well-established body of jurisprudence defining the fundamentals of due process.  There is nothing comparable for the concept of promoting free inquiry. 

Some of the order’s supporters have suggested that the regulations promulgated under it will be confined to banning official speech codes and free speech zones.  If so, implementation will be straightforward.  But arguably the duty to promote free inquiry sweeps more broadly. 

The sometimes violent reception accorded outside speakers is an obvious potential target of executive action.  Indeed, Trump has invoked outside speaker incidents at UC Berkeley as the basis for federal involvement.  Such incidents have caught the public’s attention as well.  In reality, though, they are a relatively trivial problem compared to the daily inculcation of victim ideology.  The worst impact of such shut-downs is not the loss of a fleeting alternative point of view but the warning sent to the students and faculty who remain behind that they better not themselves defy the party line. 

Yet even regarding outside speakers, the definitional challenges to promoting free inquiry are great. Must an administration affirmatively invite non-conforming speakers or simply make sure that those whom students invite are allowed to speak?  What amount of administrative effort would suffice to demonstrate a commitment to promoting free inquiry, if student censors ultimately overwhelm campus security?   Trump’s most recent vow to crack down on free speech scofflaws was prompted by the sucker punching of a recruiter at UC Berkeley from the student organizing group Turning Point USA.  Neither the assailant nor his target was affiliated with the school.  Should Berkeley nevertheless be responsible for anticipating the attack and protecting the outside petitioner? 

In a broader sense, Berkeley and the rest of academia are responsible for the Turning Point USA incident and others like it, since they relentlessly churn out the ideology that drives such brutish behavior.   After a student mob prevented me from addressing a live audience at Claremont McKenna College in 2017, self-described students of color at neighboring Pomona College published a manifesto explaining why I had to be blockaded.  It shows how a narrative that declares rational inquiry racist has been absorbed into the university’s very bloodstream:

Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity, and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples.  The idea that there is a single truth--’the Truth’--is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples.

The confusions and historical inaccuracies in this incoherent parroting of High Theory are too numerous to elucidate here. But the students’ effort, after a mere year or two in college, to mimic such theory is a measure of the unchallenged dominance of the anti-Enlightenment, anti-Western conceit.  Breaking that dominance will require introducing some modicum of ideological balance in professorships and the curriculum.  Will the implementing regulations demand such balance?  It is not unthinkable.  South Dakota just enacted a law requiring that the state’s public universities annually report their efforts to promote intellectual diversity.  A similar federal mandate would trigger an enormous backlash over academic freedom and would stigmatize faculty hired to fulfill that mandate. 

Executive power in Washington will change hands, perhaps soon.  A faculty and graduate student petition at the University of Chicago from January 2018 adumbrates how the identitarian left, already ensconced in the federal bureaucracies, could turn the executive order on its head.   Chicago business school professor Luigi Zingales had invited former Trump advisor Steve Bannon to debate globalization and immigration. According to the hundred-plus petition signatories, allowing Bannon on campus would threaten the safety of “people of color” at the university and in its surrounding community.  Naturally the signatories professed their commitment to intellectual freedom.  But it turns out that today’s intellectual freedom requires the exclusion of certain ideas:  “our mission of setting global standards for excellence in research and teaching is only possible in an environment where every member of our community is valued and hate speech that is meant to undermine their full participation is not tolerated.” 

A bureaucrat in the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights  under a woke White House could happily approve such reasoning as an effort to “promote free enquiry,” by making sure that “racism, xenophobia, and hate,” in the petition’s words, do not silence minority “voices.” Admittedly, a woke administration could undertake such anti-speech rule-making on its own, without the Trump precedent.  But the precedent makes such rule-making more likely.

Some speech advocates are counselling a wait-and-see attitude.  It is premature to assume overreach before the implementing regulations are actually drafted, they reasonably say.  And it may be that the mere promulgation of the order will have a salutary norm-setting effect, without a heavy-handed enforcement effort. National Review’s Stanley Kurtz has powerfully articulated the arguments for the order.   The response of campus officials and trade representatives to the order is another argument in its favor.  Colleges are bastions of toleration and free-wheeling debate, they insist.  “This is a solution in search of a problem,” sniffed Terry Hartle of the American Council for Education.   It is nauseating that billions of taxpayer dollars are funneled each year into entitled institutions that are so duplicitous about their failings.  Unfortunately, any enforcement effort coming from the Trump administration will be tainted with the brush of white supremacy and patriarchy, spilling over onto the concept of free speech itself. 

University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer has warned that the executive order will give rise to its own Washington bureaucracy, one that would mirror censorious campus speech committees.   The ideal solution to campus intolerance would come from non-governmental pressure.  Alumni would cease donating to their alma maters unless those colleges recommit themselves to an education steeped in the ideals of Western civilization. Parents would seek alternatives to the identity politics dominating nearly all colleges.  And trustees would finally inform themselves about the betrayal of the Western inheritance occurring under their supposed watch and demand accountability for true learning.

None of this has happened, of course, though the need for such non-governmental action has been obvious for at least four decades.  It may be that federal regulation is the only hope for a restored academic legacy.  But the history of government mission creep and bloat is not reassuring. 

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