Yesterday the president issued an executive order purporting to promote campus free speech.
At Palestine Legal, we are all too familiar with the suppression of free speech on campus. Advocacy on behalf of students and scholars who have been silenced because of their support for Palestinian rights makes up the vast majority of our caseload. We have seen universities cancel classes, censor speakers, and ban student groups because they disagreed with their views. Because we experience every day the importance of free speech protections to safeguard dissenting views, we are deeply concerned by Trump’s new order.
As the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers, and PEN America have noted, the Trump administration has blatantly disregarded the core protections of the First Amendment throughout his presidency. By inviting members of right-wing student groups, including one with a history of hiring racists and harassing college professors, to the signing ceremony, Trump confirmed the type of speech his order seeks to promote.
Indeed, Trump and his administration have proven, through their policies and hateful rhetoric, that their intent is to undermine movements for social justice and human rights. Such activism on campuses across the country has opposed the kinds of far right and white supremacist speakers that Trump supports. The First Amendment is designed to protect dissenting voices from government interference; it does not give people a right to speak without protest, nor does it ensure access to platforms.
The order directs heads of 12 federal agencies to monitor educational institutions that receive federal grants to ensure that they “promote free inquiry.” Coupled with the huge incentive of federal research and education dollars, the broad discretion given to Trump’s political appointees to judge educational institutions places significant pressure on them to prioritize activities, research, and faculty hires that would appeal to the Trump administration.
This order actually squelches the “free and open debate” it claims to promote.
Student activism has historically been at the forefront of the biggest movements for civil rights, and that's the speech that needs most protection against active right wing and government attacks on our First Amendment rights. As we monitor the impact of this executive order, we will continue to defend the right of activists to speak out, on and off campus, on critical social justice issues, including calling for Palestinian freedom and equality.