President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday upholding freedom of speech on college campuses — a move some local higher education officials shrugged off as a highly visible case of preaching to the choir.
They voiced skepticism that Trump’s order tying campus free-speech protections to federal higher education funding will have much of an impact, noting the order calls on colleges and universities to do what they are already legally required to do: uphold the First Amendment in the case of public institutions and follow their own policies in the case of private ones. Some expressed concern that new reporting requirements would mostly serve to add cost and bureaucracy.
But others said the president’s order makes a compelling statement at a time when campuses face charges of stifling conservative views. The University of Minnesota is defending in court a decision to host conservative author Ben Shapiro at a smaller venue in St. Paul because of concerns about providing security on its Minneapolis campus.
Free-speech advocates such as Jane Kirtley, a U professor and First Amendment expert, said any reminders to promote that central campus value are welcome, but she voiced some discomfort with the government stepping in to draw lines on expression.
“Across the spectrum, it’s easy to defend speech you agree with,” Kirtley said. “It’s tough to defend speech you don’t agree with.”
The president has decried the reception that conservative speakers have received on college campuses and signed the order surrounded by conservative student activists. His move comes on the heels of state-level efforts to enshrine protections for free expression on campus, including a South Dakota bill signed into law this week that prohibits public universities from blocking potentially offensive speech.
In Minnesota, Republican lawmakers introduced a bill this session that would require the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system to create a free-expression policy and submit an annual report on its enforcement. The bill, which has failed to gain traction, requests the same steps of the U, which has more autonomy.
The U declined to comment Thursday on the likely impact of the order, instead saying it stands behind a statement from the Association of American Universities, of which it is a member. The statement said member institutions are already fully committed to upholding free speech, making the order “a solution in search of a problem.”
Trump’s executive order is simply redundant, reiterating what the First Amendment already requires colleges and universities to do, said Kirtley. She said in recent years higher education institutions have flirted with impinging on free-speech protections, often under the banner of upholding values such as inclusivity, diversity and civility. She pointed to an ongoing debate over a draft policy on pronouns, in which the U backed off from including penalties for failing to refer to students or employees by their preferred pronoun.
“I think it’s useful to be reminded that the First Amendment is the overarching principle for public universities,” she said. “But the devil is in the details.”
Kirtley says she supports giving speakers such as Shapiro a chance to speak on campus. But will the federal government expect universities to comply with demands on where and when they speak? Will they be expected to cough up hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide security?
A statement from the Minnesota State system said its institutions are already strong advocates for freedom of speech.
“I am not sure that order will change much for our campuses because we are already committed to free expression,” said Paul Cerkvenik, president of the Minnesota Private College Council.
He pointed to the St. Olaf Institute for Freedom and Community, a five-year-old program on the Northfield campus that promotes civil discourse on social issues and brings in speakers from across the political spectrum.
Kathryn Hinderaker, a St. Olaf senior who leads St. Olaf College Republicans, said she is thrilled about the order, even if it remains unclear how it will be enforced and whether it can address the isolation and pushback from peers that conservative students face.
“I do think and hope this order will put pressure on college administrators to take action,” she said. “This statement from the president is incredibly important and really powerful.”
Last year, Hinderaker decried a St. Olaf decision not to schedule a speech by Shapiro on the anniversary of anti-racism protests on her campus. She also speaks highly of the Institute for Freedom and Community’s work.
The executive order directs 12 federal agencies that provide research and other grants to require universities to sign free-speech guarantees to receive the funding. It will also mandate collecting and publicizing more data on student outcomes, such as on the median earnings and loan debt of an institution’s graduates. It calls on the U.S. Department of Education to explore ways to engage higher education institutions and the federal government in sharing default risks on student loans with students.
Cerkvenik expressed some concern about the loan risk-sharing idea, saying Minnesota private colleges, which offer financial aid to 95 percent of their students, are already invested in their success.
“The idea that we should put more skin in the game is really misleading,” he said.