Universities that limit the freedom of speech are about to get clobbered big time. President Trump came out swinging Saturday against the higher-education establishment for violating our nation’s most fundamental value: free expression, guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
During a winsome, two-hour speech at the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump said: “I am proud to announce that I will be very soon signing an executive order requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research funds.”
Then, Trump brought up on stage Hayden Williams, who got punched in the eye last month for expressing his right-of-center views while visiting the University of California, Berkeley. The president said that if colleges “want our dollars, and we give it to them by the billions, they’ve got to allow people like Hayden . . . to speak.”
Educators and PC academe lashed out immediately. “This is a solution in search of a problem,” claimed Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. He insisted “free speech is a core value” at universities.
Don’t believe it.
Over 90 percent of colleges and universities restrict speech, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Campuses do it by imposing speech codes, empowering “bias” squads and allowing mobs to chase controversial speakers from campus.
Some schools even marginalize unpopular groups by cordoning them off in tiny, remote “free-speech zones.” Academics forget that our whole country is supposed to be a free-speech zone.
Last month, for example, Syracuse University denied the group Young Americans for Freedom permission to open a chapter, on the ground that the group’s requirement that members adhere to its conservative worldview is not “inclusive.”
The president is threatening to make such campus speech tyranny too costly for universities.
Congress appropriates about $38 billion a year to support research at universities. That adds up to more than half their total research budgets, plus a hefty chunk of their campus overhead funding. For all but the few most richly endowed universities, this federal money means life or death.
Trump’s critics claim he lacks authority to steer where federal research dollars go. Nonsense. After Congress appropriates, federal departments that report directly to the president decide which professors qualify for grants. These departments already have ample leeway to require applicants and their institutions to support freedom of inquiry.
In short, Trump may not need an executive order. If he decides to issue one, care needs to be taken to avoid concentrating more power in the hands of unelected Washington bureaucrats. After all, Trump won’t always be their boss.
Of course, it would be better yet to get Congress on board favoring free speech and free inquiry on campus, but with the Democrats controlling the House of Representatives, that’s unlikely. Democrats are plainly unwilling to vote in support of free anything — except free stuff, that is.
Meanwhile, free-speech advocates are using the courts to battle campus oppression. They are suing the University of Texas for unleashing “bias-response” squads to punish students for making so-called derogatory, or offensive, comments. The lawsuit alleges the bias squads are having a chilling effect on students’ free-speech rights.
Trump’s Justice Department is weighing in on the side of campus freedom in several lawsuits, and so far it’s winning. In December, the University of California settled, agreeing to provide protection for controversial speakers at major events. And the University of Michigan, under the threat of litigation, agreed to halt its practice of censoring what students can post in their own dorm rooms.
Lawsuits like these are slow and costly. So Trump’s threat to withhold research funds could add a powerful weapon in the fight for free speech on campus. Scientists and engineers eager for federal grant money will not want their goals undermined by campus political correctness.
The real beneficiaries of Trump’s announcement are students and taxpayers. When you send your kids to college, you don’t expect them to be subjected to 24/7 indoctrination in groupthink. And when you pay your taxes, you don’t want the money used to silence and punish people who happen to disagree with the left-wing elite.
Betsy McCaughey is a former lieutenant governor of New York.
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