Free speech in college

Rebecca Dunphy, Staff writer

On March 21, President Donald Trump signed an executive order into action that he calls a “historic action to defend American students and American values that have been under siege.”

Surrounded by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and over 100 students in the White House East Room, the president enacted the “Improving Free Equity, Transparency and Accountability at Colleges and Universities” order for the purpose of protecting college and university students’ First Amendment Rights.

The order directs 12 agencies that work with the Office of Management and Budget to ensure that colleges, whether public or private, comply with law and policy for free speech. For public institutions, this rests on the First Amendment, while private colleges must comply with “stated institutional policies.”

Though this does not prompt much change in what was already expected to receive federal research and education grants, the president is adamant that schools that break these rules will not receive funding.

“If a college or university does not allow you to speak, we will not give them money,” Trump said. “It’s that simple.”

Since the announcement, there has been great controversy over the order’s necessity and overall ambiguity. Though some organizational leaders, like Turning Point founder Charlie Kirk, are in support of the president’s actions, others — such as Ted Mitchell, president of the nonpartisan American Council on Education; Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities; Julie Schmid, executive director of the American Association of University Professors; and Mercyhurst’s own Randy Clemons, Ph.D., professor of Political Science and the associate dean of the Ridge College of Intelligence Studies and Applied Sciences — find the order to be questionable or unnecessary.

Largely, the order simply asks colleges to do what they were already expected to do and there is very little consideration as to how this will be carried out.

“No matter how this order is implemented, it is neither needed nor desirable, and could lead to unwanted federal micromanagement of the cutting-edge research that is critical to our nation’s continued vitality and global leadership,” Mitchell said.

Clemons called it a “baseless attack on higher education.”

“It is designed to solve a problem that doesn’t exist and to appeal to the president’s political base,” Clemons said. “As is so often the case for attacks on higher education, the arguments for this are based on: anecdotes, urban legends, rare exceptions to the norm and a lack of understanding of, and appreciation for, the values and practices of higher education.”

Looking locally, Clemons does not believe this order will have any bearing on Mercyhurst students, largely because a problem with censorship does not exist on campus.

“At Mercyhurst, unlike some other historically religious institutions, the Sisters and the various administrations have never sought to impinge on education in the classroom—and it is impossible to imagine that changing, especially due to something as insignificant as this act of political theater,” Clemons said.

The basis for this order can be traced back to an incident at University of California, Berkeley on Feb. 1, 2017, where fires were set on campus in protest of conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who was scheduled to visit the campus.

Soon after that incident, Trump tweeted, “If UC Berkeley does not allow free speech and practice violence on innocent people with a different point of view-NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

Though protection of conservative voices on campus has been an issue often spoken about by Trump, formal mention of this order was not until March 2 at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Also under this order, the Education Department is urged to promote transparency regarding financial information through the publishing of data on the College Scoreboard. This information includes student outcomes such as earnings, student debt, default rates and loan repayment rates. By 2020, the department will produce a website that gives students access to information about their total debt, loans and payment options.