Weekly News Digest, Special Edition on Free Speech Order

Crowd standing in a public square

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.

Weekly News Digest, No. 22

Crowd standing in a public square

Welcome to the twenty-second installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog.

Student Discussions

Are you interested in the role of political, social, and racial identity in speech? Do you want to talk with your peers about campus speech, civility, or post-truth conversations?

The Project on Civil Discourse is holding twenty student discussions where a group of 8-10 students and two peer facilitators come together to talk about discourse from a variety of different angles. For a list of discussions and to register, click here.

Upcoming Events

The Global Education Forum, “Hate Comes to Campus,” will be held on Thursday, March 28th. The Forum will feature a 2:30pm panel discussing free speech and the campus community and a 5:00pm panel discussing the radical right and global education. The Project on Civil Discourse is co-sponsoring the Forum and PCD Director Lara Schwartz will be a member of the first panel. For more information or to register, click here.

On Wednesday, April 3rd, Louis Michael Seidman will speak at American University about his work, “Can Free Speech be Progressive?” Seidman is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Constitutional Law at Georgetown Law. Seidman’s talk will be held at 2:30pm in Hughes Hall Formal Lounge and is presented by the Project on Civil Discourse. To RSVP through Facebook, click here.

Debate and Civil Discourse

Several months ago, Facebook filed a patent for a system where people could “meaningfully engage in civil discourse” online. The Verge walks through their patent, highlighting how it could work and discussing how it fits with Facebook’s current identity. Their system focuses on “smaller-scale engagement with local politics” and is “designed to help people come up with political solutions, not formally propose them as laws.”

An editorial in the Las Vegas Sun describes the power of a debate between the UNLV debate team and members of the Brookings Institution over healthcare policy. “Who won and who lost wasn’t as important as the overall message of the event – that divisive issues can be argued aggressively but respectfully.” Richard Reeves, from Brookings, talked in an interview with the Sunabout the importance of listening, bring facts from both sides of the issue together, and divorcing issue positions from identity.

Campus Speech

After President Trump’s announcement at CPAC of an executive order denying federal funding to colleges and universities that do not support free speech, Inside Higher Ed wrote about what this may look like. While the White House’s budget release came and went without further details on this order, it is still possible that President Trump could introduce one in the coming weeks.

After a UC Davis professor refused to retract statements that police should be killed, students are rallying to fire him. The Davis College Republicans sponsored the rally, which featured the mother of a UC Davis graduate who was killed in the line of duty and Assemblyman James Gallagher. Gallagher “turned in 10,000 signed petitions asking administrators” that the professor be fired, but still tried to encourage civil debate and talking to black students who are frequently pulled over by the police.

Incivility and Contempt

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, argues that our problem today is not incivility or intolerance, but contempt. This stems from motive attribution asymmetry, or the assumption that your side is driven by love and your opponent’s side is driven by hate. Brooks writes that we need to disagree better, not less, and commit to never treating others with contempt.

Thanks for reading!

Weekly News Digest, No. 16

Crowd standing in a public square

Welcome to the sixteenth installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog.

Upcoming Events

On Thursday, February 7th, Dr. Alice Dreger will speak at American University about cultivating the virtue of disloyalty. Dr. Dreger, a historian and researcher, will draw from real-life histories to explore ethically productive disloyalty. For more details or to RSVP, click here.

On Thursday, March 21st, the University of California’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement will host their #SpeechMatters conference at their Washington Center. With a focus on the future of free expression on college campuses, the conference will feature panels on civil discourse and online speech, along with a keynote lecture and other functions. For a detailed schedule and list of speakers or to register, click here.

Discourse on Campus

A Duke University professor apologized over the weekend after asking students through email to only speak English in department buildings and settings. In the email, the professor acknowledged the challenge of learning a non-native language but warned students that it could reflect poorly on them, affecting future opportunities in the department. This raises important questions about discourse and communication in various settings, including who and when can make such requests and where they should draw that line.

Free Speech on Campus

Earlier this month, Keith Whittington – author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech – spoke with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni about why college trustees should defend free speech. He focused on recent remarks by Temple professor Marc Lamont Hill and the ensuing reaction by university trustees and the public. Whittington says: “If universities are going to be vibrant, intellectual places, if people are going to feel comfortable voicing controversial ideas, then we need to be very tolerant. We should also be concerned about whether or not we can construct an effective, fine line between people’s scholarship and teaching, on the one hand, and people’s public remarks, on the other hand.

Jeffrey Adam Sachs argues that the campus free speech crisis ended last year, using data from the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) on speaker disinvitations, faculty terminations, and university speech policies. Sachs examines several explanations for this trend, including self-censorship, policy changes, tactics, and a change in campus culture.

Civil Discourse

Next Avenue, a public journalism service for older audiences, offers several practices for moving toward civil discourse in an age of polarization. These include speaking from humility, avoiding binary thinking, and using language that engages and allows for fruitful conversation.

Thanks for reading!

Dean Vicky Wilkins and Dr. Fanta Aw on the Project on Civil Discourse

In 2003, the Office of Campus Life launched the CIVITAS campaign to encourage civility and responsible citizenship in the American University community. Over a decade later, the Project on Civil Discourse sprang from this campaign. “The Project is very timely,” says Fanta Aw, Vice President of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence. “It’s integral to student affairs.”

When the Project was formed, Dean Vicky Wilkins says, “[we thought about] the question of being responsible with our speech as a way to move our discussions and conversations along, because students felt shut down or minimized in conversations with other students . . . You and I can have a disagreement without having a conflict.”

“We need to think about speech as moving us toward an answer.”

Wilkins and Aw believe that it is necessary to bring discourse back to its proper place on campus and in the broader community and they agree that universities play an important role.

“We’re preparing students for lifelong experiences, for lifelong learning, and civil discourse is integral to that . . . to the notion of what it means to be in and to be of a community,” Aw says.

“[Discourse] is not intuitive. It’s something you learn. What better place to do this than at an institution of higher education?”

“We’re talking about the education of the whole student.”

Photo of Kerwin Hall from the Quad
Credit: American University

In her role as dean of the School of Public Affairs, Wilkins is excited to see how the Project fits into an environment focused on how conversations can move policy along and create community. “When students have powerful discussions and debates with people who generally agree with them, they’re disagreeing on the small details, they’re disagreeing at the margins. We need to have powerful conversations that cut across points of view. That’s where the movement will happen, with very substantive debate at the root of the issue, not the periphery.”

“I don’t want to be at a university where we all agree.”

Aw frequently sees the importance of engaging in productive, truthful discourse in her work for the Office of Campus Life. “Our students are very diverse in their lived experiences and viewpoints. They need spaces to express themselves in a way that is empathetic, but critical in an intellectual way. The Project on Civil creates the space for that to happen.”

These spaces include peer-led facilitated discussions about identity, community, and discourse itself and community-wide events that grapple with similar themes. The Project also provides teaching resources and training for faculty. “Even the most civil of debates require moderation,” Wilkins says. “For professors, it’s a hard position to be in if the debate is seen as a conflict. [This] empowers them to feel more comfortable in that role.”

While Aw and Wilkins are focused on the Project’s role on campus and in the American University community, they’re equally excited about its impact on students after they graduate. As Aw says, “I’m in full support for where we can go with this lifelong learning.”

Weekly News Digest, No. 3

Welcome to the third installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog.


Tomorrow, October 4th, Students for Free Expression is hosting a student-led debate over the question: “Is health care a human right?” This event is being co-hosted by Better Angels and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and will be held in the Don Meyers Technology and Innovation Building Room 219 from 6:30-8:30PM. RSVP on their Facebook event and see the flyer below for more details.

Flyer for Students for Free Expression event

On Wednesday, October 17th, Professor Garrett Epps will speak about the complexity of free speech in a diverse society at an event hosted by the Project on Civil Discourse. Stay tuned for more details in next week’s News Digest!

Speech on Campus

Last week, witnesses from FIRE, the Newseum, PEN America, and Uncomfortable Learning at Williams College testified at a congressional hearing about the First Amendment on College Campuses. Witnesses addressed a wide range of issues, including the use of free speech as a politicized weapon to either justify unwanted speech or to stifle it. Watch the full hearing below.

In international news, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a new policy requiring publicly assisted colleges and universities to develop their own free speech policies. Most, if not all, Ontario universities already have similar policies in place, but the new provincial policy will standardize existing policies and provide the government a way to enforce free speech protections on campus.

Political Discourse

A recent St. Olaf College study found that congressional districts that are gerrymandered for partisan purposes experience more extreme campaign rhetoric. Professor Chris Chapp and three students used a machine learning algorithm to evaluate the issue pages on U.S. House candidate websites. While the team noted their results didn’t point to a causal relationship, their findings provide important insights into civil discourse in the political arena.

In national news, a senior Trump official once used semi-anonymous blog posts to question if the n-word was inherently racist and claim that many hate crimes were hoaxes. Eric Blankenstein, a policy director at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is responsible for enforcing consumer protection laws that protect minorities from discriminatory lending practices. Blankenstein said that these posts do not influence his work today.

Next week, Real Talk will feature a guest post by two American University students on navigating conversations about politics. Thanks for reading!