On Thursday, President Trump signed an executive order requiring colleges and universities to certify that they are protecting free speech on campus in order to receive research grants from the federal government. The move comes amid claims by Trump and other conservatives that their views have faced suppression on college campuses in recent years.
“Under the guise of speech codes, and safe spaces, and trigger warnings, these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shut down the voices of great young Americans,” Trump said a signing ceremony on Thursday.
It’s unclear how the administration would enforce the order, and many analysts say it would likely amount to little more than added paperwork. But the move is problematic in several ways. For one, it could exacerbate the very problem it claims it is trying to solve. For another, in doing so, it could endanger and politicize science and research that has already faced wavering support from the Trump administration.
For one, the move is a politically motivated attempt by the executive branch to weigh in on a right that is already guaranteed by the constitution. According to a statement from Julie Schmid, executive director of the American Association of University Professors, the order is a “solution in search of a problem.”
If it compels institutions to self-censor their views, it would actually be harmful to free speech on campuses. Likewise, if schools feel compelled to invite speakers they wouldn’t otherwise just to prove they are complying with the order, this could also detract from free speech.
For example, climate change skepticism (a view Trump has voiced support for) may indeed have less representation on campuses. But if this is because the vast majority of scientists agree that human activities are causing climate change. Why would those views be represented on campuses, where experts are responsible for passing on knowledge to the next generation?
In other words, perhaps certain views are more prevalent on college campuses because professors are, by definition, more educated in their fields of study than the general public. This false equivalency behind Trump’s accusations is also the reason why the measure could likely do more harm than good.
The administration’s silence on how the order will be enforced leaves us to guess that the federal government will itself decide what constitutes compliance with the First Amendment, which would introduce a dangerous new element of regulation on speech.
As far as actual incidents of silencing dissent, research by policy analyst Jeffrey Sachs, and published by the center-right think tank Niskanen Center, shows that these incidents are declining in relative terms, and very rare in absolute terms. At about 3,000 four-year institutions in the US, incidents of faculty firings over political speech and disinvitations of speakers has been measured in the dozens in the worst of recent years. And both were in single digits in 2018, at their lowest level in ten years.
As Zack Beauchamp wrote this week for Vox:
“Most of the conversation about campus censorship and free speech violations stemmed from a handful of high-profile incidents, inflated by right-wing campus watchdogs and breathless media coverage about the kids these days, in a country with thousands of college campuses and millions of college students.”
Second, by targeting research grants, the order needlessly imperils federally funded research that has already suffered under the Trump administration. It would apply to grants from 12 federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and NASA. These agencies will work directly with the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to “to ensure institutions that receive Federal research or education grants promote free inquiry.”
Yet once again, because the problem itself is amorphous, it’s unclear what the solution would look like. Tying research grants to a political crusade to promote conservative views shows as little regard for science as it does for the spirit of the First Amendment. Will universities lose funding for research if they don’t have the number of conservative speakers, or even professors, deemed sufficient by the White House?
Not unlike Trump’s national emergency declaration over undocumented immigration that has actually declined substantially over the last decade, Trump and the conservative movement have created a crisis that supports their narrative. This time, they’re using science and research as leverage. And alarmingly, both involve handing more power to the executive branch with Trump at the helm.