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.