Trump’s Flawed Plan to Promote Campus Free Speech

President Trump recently announced that he would issue an executive order permitting federal research money to be withheld from universities that violated free speech. This may appear as welcome news for fans of open campus debate, but I am not optimistic. The problems here are formidable under the best of conditions but, more important, the real problem is not that conservatives are denied a campus forum but that thousands of students are daily indoctrinated in Leftish nonsense. Pressuring universities to allow Charles Murray to speak freely for an hour or two before a few hundred college students hardly reverse the brainwashing.

Let’s start with some good news. While Trump has already been roundly criticized for this initiative, the policy of threatening to withhold federal research funds to dictate campus behavior is a long-standing one, so he hardly needs to concoct some novel justification. The National Science Foundation ($7.4 billion in grants during 2018) currently withholds research grants unless schools actively combat sexual harassment. Recall when the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter that loosened the rules for punishing those accused of campus sex-related crimes. Executive branch bureaucrats have long pressured schools to increase diversity, and nobody screamed “outside interference.” No doubt, if President Obama had embraced this pro-free speech policy, he would have been lavishly praised.

Now for the bad news. Particularly troublesome is that given the number of schools (4300 as of 2017/18), the task of monitoring possible violations is far beyond what a few Department of Justice lawyers or FBI investigators can reasonably tackle and schools will resist. F.I.R.E (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) has defended campus free speech for 20 years, and their efforts can resemble a Whack-A-Mole game. By the time a school finally agrees to eliminate its (illegal) minuscule “free speech zone,” the school has created a network of “bias response teams” to monitor and punish “offensiveness.” F.I.R.E. estimates that nearly 90% of private institution fail in one way or another to fully protect free speech.

Further, add multiple legal and administrative complexities that must all be settled prior to enforcement. How should strict Christian schools be treated if they bar speakers promoting abortion on the grounds that abortion violates Church doctrine? Does “free speech” extend the use of inflammatory terms such as the notorious “N-word”? What if students themselves suppress free speech despite contrary administrative efforts or a comic is canceled for being “offensive”? What if these campus disruptors are non-students or have only tenuous links to the university? Also, would schools be obligated to protect controversial speech with free adequate venues, free publicity, and free police protection if other campus groups receive similar benefits or does administrative non-interference suffice?

And let’s not forget about administrative dishonesty just as they cover up bias in admissions. It would not take too much time-consuming paperwork to discourage “controversial” groups from inviting unpopular speakers or school officials to insist that a potential speaker lacks proper qualifications or is a “hater” and, as we all know, fighting hate trumps the right to free speech. Picture the reaction if students invited the Noble-Prize winner James Watson to discuss genetics, IQ, and Third World economic development? Hard to image a welcoming university bureaucracy.

How are penalties to be applied, a quandary akin to the NCAA punishing schools for inter-collegiate sports violations? What might a school risk if Jim Watson is shouted down? A million-dollar cut in federal funds for on-going research? Or just a warning that two more such incidents will eliminate all research funding? In other words, enforcing this executive order requires formulating a complex legal code (including an appeals process), and this may require years of planning. A fully formed policy may have to wait until President Trump has long departed the presidency.

Now for an especially troublesome issue: What about applying campus free speech guarantees to faculty research? It is well-known that certain research topics, regardless of their scientific legitimacy, are taboo and will thus never receive the essential institutional approval prior to being submitted for government funding. Good luck to a professor who wants to investigate the genetic link between mathematical ability and sex. Given the huge number of taboo research ideas that “die” prematurely via self-censorship, this quandary is unsolvable. Imagine the bureaucratic mess if professors denied university research funding or approval for the government grant applications could invoke claims of denied free speech? A whole new class of victims!

Finally, and ironies of ironies, Trump’s executive order will greatly increase the power of the extreme PC forces on campus by making the recipients of federal research funding (disproportionately in the sciences) hostage to the uncivility of campus snowflakes, social justice warriors and assorted anti-Fascists. Now non-students can shut down faculty research by just taking their riotous antics to the campus and with the TV cameras in place encourage campus police to arrest everyone. Conceivably, molecular biology research could be terminated if a mob of gender studies airheads physically prevent James Watson from speaking. What a great tactic: if you invite Watson we’ll riot and when the police lock us up, bye-bye federal research funding.

Draconian threats will not impact the university’s most PC departments, the very ones who energetically stifle the open exchange of ideas. Few Black Studies professors dread losing NSF grants if they shut down the campus over a Heather Mac Donald talk. Matters can quickly become bizarre. Will science or engineering faculty defend Heather’s invitation by pointing out that their work (which is undoubtedly in the public interest) absolutely depends on continued NSF funding? Hopefully, the answer is “yes” but how many of these scientists are willing to go public and be shamed as “racist.” This threat of disruption is an especially evil form of the heckler’s veto—Mac Donald may now have even less of a chance of being invited thanks to President Trump’s “protection” policy.

All and all, the President’s initiative will probably go nowhere and will soon vanish. In the long-run, this is no big loss since what Charles Murray or Heather Mac Donald has to say will get through (eventually) though it may require a little extra effort. But, their messages even if given to large crowds in campus auditoriums cannot possibly reverse hundreds of classroom hours where instructors propagate Marxist nonsense about white privilege, intersectionality, and on and on. The President may be better advised to focus on indoctrination, not free speech.

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

7 thoughts on “Trump’s Flawed Plan to Promote Campus Free Speech

  1. Great article. It’s written at the point where pessimism and realism converge. We are so far along into p.c. bilge in “higher education”(sic) that the status quo seems to be irremediable.

  2. Yes, it is ridiculous that they would penalize science research funding on account of free speech violations, of whatever nature. Imagine being a postdoc at Berkeley and losing your job because some off-campus brawler slugs an off-campus pamphleteer before the campus cops get their to stop trouble!

    As suggested by the author, this might even be a boon to the radical left. Even military research is included in this edict. Antifa types will probably drool at the prospect of getting military research kicked off campus at Berkeley or Wisconsin just by staging a riot.

    It’s mind-boggling to think of one of the world’s premier scientific research centers like Berkeley being closed down because of the antics of clowns of whatever type — students, leftwing professors, rightwing provocateurs, various stripes and flavors.

    It’s also absurd, in my view, that different policies will apply to public and private universities.

    The universities have certainly been asking for something like this, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. I think not, just as I think various things like government-imposed Title IX excesses, diversity madness, etc. etc. have been very bad.

    1. :Antifa types will probably drool at the prospect of getting military research kicked off campus at Berkeley or Wisconsin just by staging a riot.”

      All it’s going to take is telling them that you’ll call in the National Guard if they do — and then doing it if they do. And then pursue them legally afterwards.

      Do this once — just once — and this foolishness will end.

      And what everyone is forgetting are the research overhead funds, which all kinds of leftist stuff. Losing those would be noticed…

  3. “the task of monitoring possible violations is far beyond what a few Department of Justice lawyers or FBI investigators can reasonably tackle”

    My fear is that this task will fall to the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) — the same folk who were/are enforcing the sexual harassment rules.

    OCR is an unmitigated disaster — even Obama didn’t have control over the regional field offices which appear to do whatever they damn well please. The inconsistencies between Region 1 and Region 2 are legendary, to the point where college administrators are told that ADA means something completely different depending on where your college is located.

    However, respectfully, what’s being overlooked here is the Research Overhead — when the Molecular Biologist gets a couple million for research, the campus administration also gets a million in unencumbered funds to spend as it pleases, and that’s where a lot of this politicized foolishness is coming from. Hence the Black Studies professors will worry about Heather McDonald being shouted down because they will lose the funding for the conference they want to host next spring.

    And the other thing which might come out of this is a definition of what constitutes criminal activity — Trump is going to have to define what constitutes free speech and what constitutes rioting, and the fact that he has to do that demonstrates how much of a mess our purported institutions of higher education have become. But SCOTUS has long established the line between “protected” and “arrestable” and that will have to be applied to academia.

    1. “the campus administration also gets a million in unencumbered funds to spend as it pleases”

      Don’t think so — the “overhead” funds are hardly unrestricted — they’re supposed to support the “indirect costs” of the research, apart from “direct costs” of personnel and equipment. So, money to help pay for the lab building, the electricity, the secretaries, the accountants, etc.

      Maybe some of it gets directed to non-science stuff, but from my experience, it’s a very small fraction.

      The idea of making science research grants hostage so that a tiny fraction of the overhead that might go to unfunded humanities and social sciences can be held hostage, to motivate those scientifically peripheral fields to behave better, strikes me as beyond absurd.

      And of course the antifa types couldn’t care less about overhead from grants. Except they would surely love to deny it to certain pretty large areas of research.

      As for the National Guard — it’s been tried more than once at Berkeley, as have massive police sweeps. It doesn’t work too well.

      The point you make about the OCR is worth noting.

      I don’t see much good coming of this.

      And wait until it is applied by the next Democratic president.

      1. Back in the early 1990’s, there was a major scandal at Stanford about the overhead being used to pay for the University President’s yacht and his wedding, amongst other things. 30 years later, I’d bet it’s happening again…

        Money is fungible and some institutions may be more honest than others — but costs are routinely shifted, look at any institution’s athletic budget… So yes, the loss of research overhead will directly impact the humanities, even if it is a campuswide cut on janitors & cleaning. And the humanities also get grants, more than you might realize.

        And what OCR doesn’t say is that they have never cut off Federal funding. Hillsdale & Grove City chose not to accept it, but OCR has always negotiated a settlement. I can’t speak to the funding agencies (e.g. NIH, ONR, etc.) but the fact that I haven’t heard about it makes me think it’s never happened.

        But as to the poor PostDoc, if the building’s on fire, he/she/it has gotta get out.

        The culture wars started during the Reagan Administration — and the sciences said nothing while the fires built around them, and now there is a raging inferno which must be extinguished. I’m sorry for the PostDoc’s career, but what about mine?
        Higher Ed is a mess that needs to be cleaned up now!

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