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Principled Opposition to Trump’s Free Speech Order is A Farce

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

It’s an unfortunate sign of the times that President Trump has to sign an executive order just to ensure that college students can exercise their First Amendment rights.

Critics are already slamming President Trump’s announcement of a new executive order withholding federal research grants from colleges and universities that fail to protect free speech on campus, but their objections are considerably off the mark.

Free expression is absolutely fundamental to the quest for knowledge, and guaranteeing this crucial right is a legal obligation of public colleges and universities.

The critics’ first line is to continue the farce, popular among liberal journalists, of pretending that there is no widespread silencing of conservatives or broader free speech crisis on America’s college campuses. Terry Hartle, of the American Council on Education, told The Washington Post that President Trump’s order is “a solution in search of a problem” and that free speech controversies are “relatively infrequent.”

No one paying close attention to the ongoing saga at the University of California, Berkeley can take that claim seriously, not even liberals. The recent assault against a conservative activist at UC Berkeley is just the latest of many acts of hostility perpetrated against conservatives on that campus in recent years -- a trend that has only been encouraged by the administration’s willingness to blame conservatives for violent reactions to their ideas.

Unfortunately, even administrators who recognize the importance of action to preserve free expression on campus, such as University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer, have reacted critically to President Trump’s announcement.

It was Zimmer who formed the committee that issued the so-called “Chicago Principles,” which are a perfect starting point for the coming executive order. Yet, Zimmer now says he fears “the precedent of the Federal government establishing its own standing to interfere in the issue of speech on campuses” and “the inevitable establishment of a bureaucracy to enforce any governmental position.”

With all due respect to Zimmer, those precedents have long since been established. Indeed, an executive order requiring schools to respect free expression and do their part to protect students from violent campus radicals before they get federal research money would hardly be the first time the government has “interfered” on campus or used bureaucracy to make sure publicly funded universities uphold certain social ideals.

For decades, the federal government has used the power of the purse to mandate principles far less central to the traditions of American liberty and academic freedom than free speech. Merely allowing students to accept federal financial aid subjects colleges to onerous federal mandates governing their approach to issues such as non-discrimination.

Under the Obama administration, federal bureaucrats got much more aggressive and shameless in using this power to enforce progressive orthodoxy on campus. Without any new legislation from Congress, President Obama’s Department of Education began threatening to cut off loans for institutions that refused to “put an end to rape-permissive cultures” by doing away with all notions of due process for people accused of sexual assault.

Schools were told to that, to keep the funding most institutions need to function, they could no longer use a “proof beyond reasonable doubt” standard, or even allow the cross-examination of accusers in any sexual assault case. As a result, male students were frequently expelled and disgraced without even the most basic of all legal protections, the presumption of innocence.

Again without any new legislation from Congress, the Obama administration also decided that existing law against sex discrimination automatically applies to gay, transgender, and “gender non-conforming” students. As a result, any school not allowing male transgender students into women’s dorms, or not permitting same-sex relations and marriage among their students risked losing its federal funding.

Even as the Trump administration rolls back many of these excesses, Christian institutions of higher learning are fearful that existing laws could enable a future administration to revoke their federal funding or tax-exempt status if they don’t agree to violate their own religious principles.

Left-wing groups are already working to revoke religious exemptions to these rules, calling them “licenses to discriminate.”

Unlike the Obama administration’s use of federal funds as a means of compelling colleges to engage in certain behaviors, President Trump’s proposed executive order only demands that they uphold their existing obligation to ensure free expression on campus. Rather than imposing burdensome and confusing new rules, most universities will be able to comply with the order by eliminating existing restrictions on speech, such as deceptively-named “free speech zones” that limit free expression to tiny, out-of-the-way areas of campus.

Institutions that receive millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, and in some cases billions of dollars in taxpayer research funding, must do their part to ensure the free exchange of ideas in American higher education. President Trump’s executive order mandating that they do so shouldn’t be necessary, but it is long overdue.

 Autumn Johnson is a second-year law student at Liberty University School of Law.

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