WASHINGTON (BP) — An executive order by President Trump seeking to protect free speech on college campuses — especially by Christians and political conservatives — has drawn mixed responses.
Conservatives applauded Trump’s effort to protect free speech, though at least one Republican senator questioned the president’s specific approach. Some liberal groups claimed the executive order might actually inhibit the free exchange of ideas at colleges and universities.
Carol Swain, a former Vanderbilt University law professor who came under fire on campus for her conservative views, told Baptist Press, “President Trump’s executive order on free speech in higher education is a step in the right direction when it comes to affirming our national interest in protecting our First Amendment rights and privileges.
“The executive order, if it is taken seriously by university administrators, should help address some of the blatant discrimination against conservatives and Christians on college and university campuses,” Swain said via email. “Young people need exposure to diverse opinions to develop critical thinking skills. Our institutions of higher education should not be liberal indoctrination mills for people obsessed with political correctness. We must dedicate ourselves to creating environments where honest debate can transpire among ideologically diverse faculty.”
At a March 21 White House signing ceremony, Trump claimed some universities “have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shut down the voices of great young Americans” under “the guise of ‘speech codes’ and ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings.'”
Appearing with Trump at the ceremony were students who allegedly had their freedom of speech stifled on college and university campuses. One student reportedly was required to post warning signs about her pro-life display at Miami University in Ohio. Another allegedly was stopped by officials at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College when she handed out homemade Valentine’s Day cards with messages like “You are special” and “Jesus loves you.”
The executive order directs federal agencies to deny research and education grants to public universities that violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and private universities that fail to abide by their own free speech codes. Separate sections of the order require schools to publish average earnings and loan repayment rates of former students who received federal student aid.
Enforcement of the order will be left to federal agencies that award grants, according to media reports.
Among opponents of Trump’s order, the president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities called it “a very concerning federal overreach,” according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. The president of the American Council on Education said the order “could lead to unwanted federal micromanagement of cutting-edge research.”
University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone told The Chronicle the executive order probably will be challenged in court, including its provision allowing government agencies to enforce private institutions’ own free speech policies.
Among supporters of Trump’s order, according to media reports, are Liberty University, the pro-life group Students for Life of America and the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he supports Trump’s push for free speech on campus but doesn’t “want to see Congress or the president or the department of anything creating codes to define what you can say on campus.”
Bill Noe, national collegiate ministry specialist for LifeWay Christian Resources, told BP “free speech on college campuses has always been an important issue and has for the most part been pretty well protected.” On campuses where Christians’ free speech right is under attack, he said, believers should respond with kindness and talk with policymakers about solutions.
“There is an attack on Christians on the college campus,” Noe said. “But I would encourage college ministry leaders, instead of taking a defensive posture, to take a proactive, servant, loving posture.”