I have a college speaking tour called “Make Campus Great Again.” Spoiler alert: the way to make campus great again is to reaffirm commitment to free speech, civil discourse, and the encouragement of plural opinions on campus.
Last week, President Trump took a big step towards doing just that when he signed an Executive Order directing federal agencies to withhold federal research funding if academic institutions do not uphold and foster an environment of free inquiry.
But what made me come to the conclusion that free speech in higher education is at a crisis level? How and why is it so bad that campus must be made great once again?
I first realized there might be a problem when I experienced gross viewpoint discrimination during my own time as an undergraduate. Professors mocked me and my student group on Facebook for our conservative, Christian beliefs. We were blocked countless times from bringing right-of-center speakers to campus for academic credit. We were discriminated against when it came to the allotment of student government funding.
I thought surely my experience was an anomaly and most institutions of higher education treated students, and the First Amendment, with more respect. It turns out I was wrong.
Since graduating with my bachelors in 2014, I have spent years documenting the misconduct of biased professors, writing about draconian speech codes at public colleges and universities, and highlighting the degradation of academic exploration and the marketplace of ideas. In fact, it turns out my experience with campus censorship was not unique; rather, it was one of the thousands of examples of our failed American education system.
On Thursday I watched from the front row as President Trump signed an executive order to protect the free speech of Americans on college campuses.
“Under the guise of speech codes, safe spaces, and trigger warnings, these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity, and shut down the voices of great young Americans like those here today. All of that changes starting right now,” Trump said.
He brought on stage students who have been harassed, bullied, and assaulted on campus by leftists who believe their feelings override the protections of the First Amendment.
Pro-life student Ellen Wittman, of Miami University in Ohio, told her story of how she was required to give campus-wide trigger warnings before erecting a pro-life display on campus.
Polly Olsen, of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, explained how her school would not allow her to hand out Valentine's Day cards with Christian messages on them.
University of Nebraska student Katie Mullen told how she was protested, harassed, and mocked by two college employees when promoting her conservative student organization on campus.
These stories, so similar to my own, highlighted the great need for reform and I’m so thankful that President Trump allowed these students to share their stories with the world.
I was moved by President Trump’s praise for all the work young conservatives have done to highlight this issue and encouraged by his message to stand strong and never quit.
"You refuse to be silenced by powerful institutions and closed-minded critics," the president rightly stated. After all, we are a determined group of free speech warriors!
The White House has made it clear that they stand with campus conservatives and every other young person fighting for freedom in America. I feel like the work we’ve done has truly made a difference and has been instrumental in bringing these issues to the attention of the President. Without continued activism, watchdog reporting, and advocacy, this historic executive order would not have been signed.
This has been the culmination of many years of hard work, and I am so grateful that after many years fighting by ourselves on campus, young conservatives finally have support from the White House; the President has the power to affect real change in ways students are simply unable. I am so humbled and moved by the President’s speech and support that we fought so hard to get.
There is no greater time for this historic action than now, as a new survey found 38 percent of Republican students sometimes feel unsafe on campus because of their political views, while less than half said they feel welcome at their school.
Of course, an order on paper changes nothing, but this mandate gives federal agencies the power to do something -- without waiting for college students to take legal action and sue their school on their own. In short, Trump’s direction gives teeth to the First Amendment and agencies which seek to uphold it.
Freedom of speech is not a left vs. right issue. It’s an American issue. And Trump’s action is a great first step in making campus great again.
Lauren Cooley is a free speech advocate that has a college speaking tour about the topic. She is studying/researching the first amendment’s role in higher education at the University of Miami. You can follow her on Twitter @laurenacooley