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Trump’s executive order on campus free speech will be enforced. What if that’s the problem?

Predicting how a ‘woke White House’ will use it

One of the refreshing things about the conservative reaction to President Trump’s executive order on campus free speech is that it hasn’t been monolithic.

This was foreshadowed in the punditry preceding the order. Our own Daniel Payne warned that the top-down action may interfere with ongoing, positive, gradual changes to the campus environment for intellectual openness.

I wonder if we may be approaching a new consensus on a related issue – the effectiveness of the order – while disagreeing whether that outcome is ideal.

Stanley Kurtz, who helped write model state legislation on campus free speech, wrote last week in National Review that the order is a “game changer” because it “creates an entirely new enforcement dynamic on a new playing field.”

Offices of legal counsel are already “cautious to a fault and can’t afford to rely on the hope of lax federal enforcement,” he said, which means they are more likely to proactively nix or revise unconstitutional policies or those that already violate their stated free-inquiry policies.

It’s also harder for regulators to ignore documented violations such as viral-video shoutdowns:

Today, colleges manipulate and evade the law, even when they are called on their bad policies by the courts. But Trump’s order raises the stakes in a way that colleges may no longer be able to ignore. And it creates a dynamic in which the public will demand follow-through on the sort of openly outrageous cases that crop up regularly nowadays.

MORE: Yes, there is a free speech problem on campus

“Follow-through” is exactly what worries Heather Mac Donald, the Manhattan Institute scholar and author who is no stranger to shoutdowns and disruptions, in a thoughtful RealClearEducation essay Monday.

Not only does she echo Payne’s concerns about institutional resistance to top-down directives, but Mac Donald looks beyond the current administration to the next Democratic White House.

For a preview, look no further than the faculty and graduate student protest against the University of Chicago’s debate invitation to former Trump strategist Steve Bannon a year ago.

Their argument against Bannon’s presence shows how “the identitarian left, already ensconced in the federal bureaucracies, could turn the executive order on its head,” Mac Donald writes:

Naturally the signatories professed their commitment to intellectual freedom. But it turns out that today’s intellectual freedom requires the exclusion of certain ideas: “our mission of setting global standards for excellence in research and teaching is only possible in an environment where every member of our community is valued and hate speech that is meant to undermine their full participation is not tolerated.”

A bureaucrat in the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights under a woke White House could happily approve such reasoning as an effort to “promote free enquiry,” by making sure that “racism, xenophobia, and hate,” in the petition’s words, do not silence minority “voices.” Admittedly, a woke administration could undertake such anti-speech rule-making on its own, without the Trump precedent. But the precedent makes such rule-making more likely.

MORE: Executive order may just make a bad problem worse

The implementation of the order by a dozen federal agencies may haphazardly try to fix the bigger problem, which is “the daily inculcation of victim ideology.”

Mac Donald mocks the “incoherent parroting of High Theory” among students who justified the mob shutdown of her 2017 speech at Claremont McKenna College:

But the students’ effort, after a mere year or two in college, to mimic such theory is a measure of the unchallenged dominance of the anti-Enlightenment, anti-Western conceit. Breaking that dominance will require introducing some modicum of ideological balance in professorships and the curriculum.

She worries that a federal version of South Dakota’s recent law – which mandates annual reports from public universities on their promotion of intellectual diversity – “would trigger an enormous backlash over academic freedom and would stigmatize faculty hired to fulfill that mandate.”

I’m similarly skeptical that an administration not known for thoughtful implementation of executive orders can get this one right on the first, or even fifth, try.

But I’m glad that the intellectual quarters of the right are having the debate, setting the example for campus administrators who increasingly view debate as a threat to students.

MORE: Bill would impose steep penalties on censorious public colleges

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg Piper served as associate editor of The College Fix from 2014 to 2021.