Questions Abound After Trump Threatens to Strip Funding from Colleges That Don’t Support Free Speech

Susan Svrluga, Washington Post, March 4, 2019

Conservative activists cheered loudly and applauded when President Trump announced Saturday that he would make federal funding for universities contingent on support for free speech.

But some First Amendment experts and university officials greeted the announcement that Trump would impose an executive order with questions: Was this political rhetoric, or an imminent policy change? What would qualify as a commitment to free speech, and who would get to decide? And what money was in question — research funding or tuition grants for low-income students?

Trump told the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor, Md., that his executive order would “require colleges to support free speech if they want federal research” money.

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Samuel J. Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has surveyed thousands of students, faculty and administrators about their views, said he cheered when he saw the alert on his phone.

“The need is very real” to find ways to encourage more diversity of ideas on campuses, he said. People are so afraid of offending someone that honest, open discourse is disappearing, he said, and he’s grateful Trump put it on the national agenda. But he worries that government intervention is not a good way to improve the situation. “Having the government make the call — is this free speech good enough or not good enough? — and if not good enough, billions of dollars are at risk, innovation is at risk.” That is a scary idea, he said.

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UC-Berkeley was again a target this year. Trump stood on stage at CPAC with a conservative activist who was attacked while “tabling” — sharing information — in Berkeley’s public plaza, which has long been a national symbol of free speech. Video of the punch went viral, reinforcing the stereotype that conservative thought is viewed with hostility on the state flagship campus.

Neither the attacker — who has since been arrested — nor the victim, Hayden Williams, was a student or employee of the university.

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“In the last year alone, this University spent more than $4 million to ensure that our conservative students could safely and successfully hold events on campus and invite speakers of their choice to these events,” university officials wrote, including a list of prominent conservative speakers who had been hosted by campus groups without protest or incident. The school’s [UC-Berkeley’s] chancellor, Carol Christ, had told the campus, “Our commitment to freedom of expression and belief is unwavering.”

Leaders of several other public research universities and the interest group that represents them said Trump’s proposed action is unwarranted.

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The University of Chicago’s president, Robert J. Zimmer, warned in a message to campus Monday that federal intervention would be a grave error, allowing the government — with all its power — to help define the nature of campus discussion and creating a bureaucracy to enforce its position.

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