Trump’s “free inquiry” executive order redundant
Updated: May 11, 2022
Just this past week, President Donald Trump called for an executive order that would mandate universities to support "free inquiry" in order to qualify for federal funding. Conservative ideals are seemingly under attack in higher institutions. OneClass content manager and blogger Jerry Zheng took to Fox Nation to share his study suggesting less than half of college conservatives feel welcome or even safe on campus. News stories regarding controversial right-wing speakers such as Ben Shapiro and Ann Coulter being met with wild protests from university students have caught national attention, sparking a debate on university censorship.
Although I do agree that universities should allow controversial speakers and encourage members of the community to respond with non-violence and discourse, I remain skeptical of the executive order. The First Amendment currently does mandate universities to abide by it, so this executive order would simply be redundant. Also, Trump has not had the most positive record with the First Amendment. Since announcing himself as a presidential candidate, he built his brand around cozying up with white supremacists and fighting "fake news." Within one year of his inauguration, he swore to "totally destroy" the Johnson Amendment, which would threaten the separation of church and state. During the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in 2018, he insinuated that the people should not have the right to protest. He continues to condemn news stories that do not portray him in the most favorable light, claiming that they are "fake news" or part of some "witch hunt." The list of examples of him not being in favor of the First Amendment continues.
Like far too many, Trump seems to accept freedom of speech... until it works against him. He supports it when it means he can say offensive or shocking comments that later can be used to tout him as a man who "speaks his mind." However, the second that the First Amendment allows anyone (including Fox News) to criticize Trump in even the slightest, it's suddenly an attack that should be extinguished. Seeing how enthusiastic Trump is in protecting the First Amendment in this context, I'm a bit wary as to how this executive order will be enacted.
Mandating controversial speakers sounds like a fair enough concept in theory. However, actually putting it into practice and enforcing it is where this executive order can falter. Presumably, Trump wants to enforce it because he believes that college campuses unfairly favor liberal voices over conservative voices. Although it is no secret that college students tend to lean more liberal, campus censorship is not a partisan issue. The Georgetown Free Speech Project (FSP) suggests that in terms of the number of speakers prevented from speaking on campus, liberals get the short end of the stick. Conservative and right-wing speakers who get the media attention, such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter, tend to be barred multiple times and rack up publicity. If this was flipped — meaning, a select few liberal speakers were getting national attention for being barred from college campuses and many conservative speakers were silently being rejected — I don't know if an executive order would be pushed. For a more holistic view of college campus censorship, we need to discuss how free speech is preached by many across the political spectrum but not protected with such zeal or enthusiasm when it involves ideologies differing from their own. Instead of banning voices, we should encourage students to host debates and nonviolent protests to counter these voices.
There are, of course, limitations to freedom of speech. There comes a point in which speech turns to extremism or encourages violence. However, these types of speech are unconstitutional and should not be (and are not) protected. What I do call for are more proactive measures of political discourse and a protection of democracy. The First Amendment does not have an asterisk that leads to a footnote reading "Terms and conditions may apply based on ideology." Although mandating "free inquiry" sounds good on paper, I hope that it is equally protected across the board.