On March 21, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that vows to protect student speech rights by withholding federal funds from colleges and universities that “restrict free thought, impose total conformity, and shut down the voices of great young Americans.”
As polarizing as President Trump may be, this executive order is undeniably a step in the right direction to keep alive one of the core values of being an American – free speech.
Some may say that the First Amendment isn’t in danger and that right-wingers are perpetuating made-up narratives of extremist leftists censoring student speech. Is it really a concern when conservatives like Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter are shut down from speaking at prestigious universities? The College Republicans at the University of California, Berkeley sued the university in violation of their First Amendment rights. (The case was eventually dismissed. A settlement was later reached, with the university paying for attorney’s fees and reconsidering some of their major events policies, but not conceding that discrimination occurred.)
The intolerance for other beliefs and ideologies needs to stop. Most students at USF would agree that the school isn’t the most politically diverse. As a university that prides itself on social justice and tolerance, many of its students mostly align with the left. USF lacks a conservative presence among its students — there isn’t even a conservative club associated with the University. Much of this has to do with a fear of retaliation for different political beliefs.
Why is a hostile environment to differing political views allowed to exist within college campuses? Mark Bauerlein, professor at Emory University and senior editor at “First Things,” wrote in a New York Times op-ed that the problem of campus intolerance stems from “the relationship the [college] administration has formed with undergraduates from the beginning, especially with those from underrepresented populations.” He further writes that prestigious universities like Yale want to keep their “pledges of inclusivity and anti-discrimination and sensitivity” while trying to foster “open inquiry and lively debate.” Bauerlein, however, dismisses the belief that liberal bias is a factor of administrations’ censoring of student speech.
It is naïve to believe that liberal bias does not play a role in these events. Bauerlein asserts that students “who object to the very presence of an outspoken conservative on campus” believe that administrators allowing these controversial speakers is tacit approval.
On the other hand, administrators and campus security simply standing by and allowing riots and violence to occur as justification to shut down conservative speech irrefutably is censorship.
Mitchell Langbert, professor of Brooklyn College, conducted a study on the political affiliations of faculty members at 51 of the 66 top-ranked liberal arts colleges by U.S. News and World Report in 2017. He found that none of the 51 colleges had more Republican professors than Democrats. Over a third of them had no Republicans at all. The study shows a disturbing pattern: there may be potential discrimination in hiring practices in universities. If college hiring boards appear to potentially discriminate against professors of differing political opinions, who is to say that the bias doesn’t also transfer to student and guest political speakers in colleges?
Some believe that having the federal government execute an order to enforce First Amendment protections will lead to more censorship by selective enforcement, which is when authorities, such as officers of a government agency, selectively place sanctions on specific offenders — most of the time against entities that have a disfavorable view of the authority enforcing it. However, the 14th Amendment, equal protection, protects individuals if faced with selective enforcement.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, known for their defense of student speech, took a “wait and see” position on the executive order. This is a sign that there may be merit for the directive — that it may not be just a stunt to boost popularity among his base, or even to retaliate against liberal opponents.
Here at USF, public debate and discourse is not uncommon. Petitions advocating against the increase of tuition and advocating for student health during the wildfires are just some of the activities protected under the First Amendment during this academic year. Currently, part-time faculty is exercising free speech by advocating for better compensation.
The executive order is a symbol of the political rift we as a nation currently face. As it stands today, conservative views seem to be censored the most often, but it may not be far in the distant future that liberal views may undergo the same trials of fire. This protection that the president has signed is one that should be applauded.