Trump’s Executive Order Encourages Hate Speech Under Guise Of Free Speech
On 21 March 2019, President Trump signed an executive order titled “Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities.” President Trump’s call for free speech on college campuses is clearly a political ploy to encourage voices from the American radical right to further push their messages on college campuses.
At the signing ceremony, Trump stated that, “Under the guise of speech codes, and safe spaces, and trigger warnings, these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shut down the voices of great young Americans.” The reality, by contrast, is that most colleges don’t have speech codes, or safe spaces and trigger warnings are generally used in instances where sexual violence is portrayed, not for instances of political speech.
It is important to note that it is a small number of speakers in repeated instances who have provoked violence or had their talks canceled. Sanford J. Unger, who directs the Knight Foundation-funded Free Speech Project at Georgetown, has noted that “most of the incidents where presumptively conservative speech has been interrupted or squelched in the last two or three years seem to involve the same few speakers: Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, Charles Murray, and Ann Coulter — all different from each other, and not necessarily allies, but the people most frequently publicized for being at the heart of campus controversies. In some instances, they seem to invite, and delight in, disruption.”
An article in The Hill noted that “Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, expressed concerns about Trump or lawmakers defining what can and can’t be said on college campuses, ‘The U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech. Federal courts define and enforce it. The Department of Justice can weigh in,’ Alexander said in a statement. “Conservatives don’t like it when judges try to write laws, and conservatives should not like it when legislators and agencies try to rewrite the Constitution.”’
As Ruth Wodak has argued in her excellent book, The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Discourses Mean: “Currently we observe a normalization of nationalistic, xenophobic, racist and anti-semitic rhetoric, which primarily works with ‘fear’: fear of change, of globalization, of loss of welfare, of climate change, of changing gender roles, in principle, almost anything can be constructed as a threat to ‘Us’, an imagined homogenous people inside a well-protected territory.” This sense of fear and threat is playing out in this approach to campus controversies, with far-right conservative commentators playing upon the fears of students who see the impact of changing demographics as a challenge to their privilege.
As a college administrator, I have experienced the challenges that campuses face defending free speech – while facing a wave of hate speech that has come from the top of the administration, down to the likes of the Charlottesville alt-right protestors with their tiki torches. Often the problem is symbols that are offensive, some harkening back to Nazism, slavery, or tropes that erase the real history of the US, which have existed on college campuses since many were founded. For example, every day of my 12 years at the University of Texas at Austin, I had to walk past statues of Jefferson Davis and other Confederate symbols.
Those statues were removed in the summer of 2017, with the news making it into The New York Times:
The university’s president, Greg Fenves, explained that the decision had been made after the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., this month opened his eyes to what the statues represented.
In a letter to the Texas campus’s community, Mr. Fenves wrote that after the events in Charlottesville, it had become clear to him “that Confederate monuments have become symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism.”
College campuses have become a flashpoint in this fraught political moment. Many campuses around the country bore witness to the kinds of violence that has occurred at places like University of California, Berkeley, when Milo Yiannopoulos tried to appear on the campus two years ago; or the violent confrontations in February of 2018 at the University of Washington when Patriot Prayer and Patriot Pride leaders spoke on campus, a year after Milo’s appearance on campus led to a man getting shot.
As noted above, campuses have struggled not only with far-right speakers but also in dealing with the legacy of Confederate statues, many of which were put in place during the Jim Crow era of the 1920s and 1930s. The situation with the statue of “Silent Sam” (a Confederate soldier) on the University of North Carolina campus led to a series of confrontations between students and protestors. The monument met its final demise when the University’s Chancellor, Carol Folt, decided to remove the remnants of the statue and then resigned. She managed a quick turnaround, taking on the presidency at the University of Southern California, which has been buffeted by a series of unrelated scandals.
The highly publicized confrontations were certainly in the mind of those who encouraged Trump to sign his executive order. What has been more insidious is the victim-playing that is encouraged by this order. As Paul Waldman has noted in an op-ed for The Washington Post: “No presidential candidate ever validated and nurtured the right’s fantasies of victimhood like Donald Trump did. He said to conservative Christians: Yes, you are the real oppressed minority (even if you’re the majority).” The idea that conservative students are oppressed is over-stated at best.
Sanford J. Unger recently opined that, “Often ignored altogether in the public dialogue are the many occasions when there are no protests over speakers on one side or another, or protests are successfully resolved by campus authorities and events go forward as scheduled without disruption or violence.”
American colleges and universities are generally environments where all viewpoints are welcomed. However, a line has to be drawn when ideas veer into the realm of bullying, racism, and misogyny. Colleges and universities are well-equipped to handle these issues without the intervention of the federal government. The small number of violent incidents across the country are not in any way indicative of the way that conservative speakers who provide an honest, intellectual perspective, are treated on college campuses.
It remains to be seen how this new order will be implemented, but it will be important to monitor any impacts. There could be unintended consequences that impact all sides of the ideological spectrum. It could certainly have a chilling effect on the honest dialogue that has been a tradition on American campuses for centuries.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world. Learn more about the event about hate speech on college campuses CARR and Rantt Media are co-sponsoring at American University on March 28, 2019.
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