Experts: Colleges unlikely to be affected by Trump’s free speech order

A student in a blue suit stands across from a uniformed Campus Safety officer. Behind the officer are shouting students. One holds a sign reading "Black Lives Matter.
Students from across the Claremont Colleges blockaded the Athenaeum before a scheduled talk by Heather Mac Donald at Claremont McKenna College in April 2017. The incident has been cited by national media as an example of the types of incidents that prompted the executive order. (Liam Brooks • The Student Life)

A recent executive order issued by President Donald Trump directs federal agencies to fund colleges and universities based on how they enforce free speech rights on their campuses — but it’s unlikely to have a practical impact on federal funding for the 5Cs.

In March, Trump ordered colleges to ensure protection of free speech in order to receive part of the research and educational grants provided by the executive branch, which total more than $35 billion per year.

“We will not stand idly by to allow public institutions to violate their students’ constitutional rights,” Trump said at the signing ceremony. “If a college or university doesn’t allow you to speak, we will not give them money. It’s very simple.”

But according to Vox, the executive order simply reiterates the Trump administration’s desire for schools to follow existing laws on free inquiry, and directs federal agencies that fund research to make sure they are still following those laws — an oversight process that is already required.

And First Amendment expert Clay Calvert, director of the University of Florida’s First Amendment Project, told Newsweek that he views the executive order as a “highly symbolic gesture.”

California colleges and universities are also bound by the Leonard Law, which compels them to comply with the First Amendment in protecting speech.

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Free speech on college campuses — and specifically, claims that colleges have gone too far in promoting political correctness and have effectively censored conservatives — has become a major cause for conservative groups and activists in recent years, according to The New York Times.

The 5Cs haven’t been above these claims.

The protest of conservative speaker and anti-Black Lives Matter advocate Heather Mac Donald in 2017, during which students blocking entrances and exits to Claremont McKenna College’s Athenaeum, led to suspensions and probation for seven CMC students.

The incident has been cited in national news outlets, including The New York Times, as one of the examples of alleged suppression of free speech that prompted the executive order.

The following semester, CMC established a section of its website dedicated to free speech issues.

“Protecting the right to free expression is absolutely vital, yet insufficient, to accomplish our full academic mission,” CMC President Hiram Chodosh wrote in a campus-wide email at the time. “We must find the best ways to learn from one another in the practice and purpose of open, engaged, respectful debate and dialogue.”

CMC also implemented a number of reforms to promote free speech last year, ultimately becoming the first liberal arts college to receive a favorable free speech rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

CMC spokesperson Peter Hong said via email that freedom of expression is a fundamental principle and commitment for the school.

“The executive order raises many questions, both practical and legal, which will likely take some time to resolve,” he wrote. “Meanwhile, CMC will continue to focus on free expression, viewpoint diversity and effective dialogue as vital commitments of our academic program and community.”

Last semester, Pomona College’s Task Force on Public Dialogue published an in-depth report that said 88% of students of all political identities agreed that the campus climate stifles speech that could be found offensive — a statistic that’s 30% higher than that of college students nationally and 25% higher than that of Pomona faculty.

Pomona spokesperson Patricia Vest said Pomona’s support of free speech, academic freedom and open dialogue is enduring.

Regarding federal funding that could potentially be tied to this executive order, Vest said Pomona receives “competitive federal research grants primarily from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health,” although the individual awards vary in size and duration from year to year.

Scripps College receives approximately $150,000 annually from federal agencies including the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, according to Scripps spokesperson Rachael Warecki.

“Scripps College encourages students to engage in dialogue about current political, economic and social events that affect their lives and the future of society,” Warecki said via email. “The administration also supports faculty members’ ability to sponsor events as an expression of academic freedom and to encourage students to engage in the critical analysis of ideas and narratives that these speakers provide.”

Pitzer College and Harvey Mudd College did not respond to a request for comment.

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