Weekly News Digest, Special Edition on Free Speech Order

Welcome to a special edition of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog. On Thursday, President Trump signed an executive order protecting free speech on the campuses of colleges and universities.

Director Lara Schwartz spoke with Wisconsin Public Radio on Monday evening about the order and its implications and legality. Listen here.

Keep reading for more analysis and reporting for different sources.

“The heads of covered agencies shall, in coordination with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, take appropriate steps, in a manner consistent with applicable law, including the First Amendment, to ensure that institutions that receive Federal research or education grants promote free inquiry, including through compliance with all applicable Federal laws, regulations, and policies.”

President Trump first announced the executive order during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in early March, saying that colleges and universities must support free speech in order to be eligible for federal research dollars. Weeks later, the text of the newly-signed order said just that and little more. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the order, as written, will have little immediate impact since public colleges are already legally bound by the First Amendment and private colleges only need to comply with their institutional policies.

While individual agencies will implement the order differently and may maintain the status quo, some organizations are concerned about the political context of the order. In a statement, pro-speech group PEN America outlined several concerns with the order, including the lack of proper definitions of “appropriate steps” and “free inquiry.” In fact, PEN America argues that the order could be restrict speech if education and research funding is tied “to prevailing political winds.”

“Yet this Administration has a pronounced pattern of using its muscle to protect certain viewpoints, while either encouraging or even exacting reprisals against speech it finds objectionable or critical.”

Ella Nilsen writes that this executive order is “more symbolism than substance,” as it is a “largely symbolic move meant to satisfy a key demand of Trump’s conservative base. Nilsen also echoes the Chronicle’s point that colleges “already have to protect free speech to get federal money.”

In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman (authors of the book “Free Speech on Campus”) write that this executive order is “almost certainly” unconstitutional because of its vagueness and ambiguity. They write: “The Supreme Court long has held that any conditions on federal funds must be clearly and explicitly stated.”

Andrew Kreighbaum writes that Jerry Falwell, Jr., a key Trump Administration ally in higher education, falls short of his own rhetoric on free speech. Kreighbaum reports that Falwell has been frequently criticized for trying to censor the Liberty Champion, the university’s student newspaper. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that advocates for free speech on campus, actually listed Liberty “in its annual list of the 10 worst colleges for free speech.”

It’s too soon to know the impact that President Trump’s executive order will have on colleges and universities. As this unfolds in the coming days and weeks and as the federal government begins to implement the order, Real Talk will continue to provide coverage of this story and others related to discourse, civility, and speech in higher education.

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