President Donald Trump signed an executive order last month promising to enforce the First Amendment in colleges across the country. He vowed to withhold federal funding from universities that do not comply. Not so surprisingly for today’s political climate, the political left, the very founders of the free speech movement, attacked the executive order. But one does not have to be a supporter of the president to acknowledge that there is, in fact, a free speech problem on college campuses.
Much of the backlash has come from the University of California system, which is apparently “ground zero for robust exchanges of ideas and differing viewpoints,” according to UC system President Janet Napolitano.
Erwin Chermerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law, and Howard Gillman, Chancellor of UC Irvine, wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, contending that the executive order is unnecessary and unconstitutionally vague.
The unconstitutionality of the executive order is one argument, whose merits will surely be decided by the courts. But the UC administrators continue by making a non-legal argument that there is no free speech problem on American campuses today — “There is no crisis concerning free speech on campuses in the United States,” they write.
Napolitano wrote in a statement, “The executive order that President Trump signed today is unnecessary. Like many higher education institutions across the country, the University of California is ground zero for robust exchanges of ideas and differing viewpoints.”
This statement is categorically false.
We are living in an era when certain groups believe they have the right to remove someone else’s freedom of speech if they find it offensive. The problem is that offensiveness can only be judged by those who experience it; it isn’t an objective standard. It is difficult to have a respectful debate about abortion, privilege or immigration with no ad hominem attacks. Luckily, USC did not cave in after several groups tried to shut down conservative speaker Ben Shapiro’s talk on campus last fall.
But the free speech problem extends far beyond one specific event; it has to do with today’s debate culture. Last week, as I was scrolling through Facebook, I saw two people furiously debating an issue in the comments of a post, each of them raising novel and brilliant points. But the last of one debater’s comments said she was going to block her opponent because of the argument. The user went on to qualify her blocking in saying, “I think you’re a super nice guy tho and I wish you the best. I just don’t want to continue getting into fb arguments w you or your friends over an issue that we clearly see very differently.”
While everyone can certainly block whomever they would like on their private Facebook accounts, the implications of this particular example are troubling. Blocking on a private Facebook account, choosing not to listen to someone you disagree with — while unproductive and narrow-minded — is perfectly legal. But if a college were to practice the equivalent by shutting down someone’s ability to speak to those who do want to listen, it would not be legal. Blocking or unfriending someone perpetuates an echo chamber and prevents healthy debate. And if that is something a social media user wants, by all means they can arrange that for themselves. But he should not be allowed to force that upon those who do seek to be exposed to an adversarial viewpoint.
Protesting the content of someone’s opinion is different from protesting that person’s right to speak in the first place. The former is the essence of the First Amendment, and the latter is the antithesis. The first is an act of confidence and the second is an act of cowardice. The first cannot coexist with the second.
College administrators must realize that many students are advocating the censorship of speech they disagree with. While the specifics of President Trump’s executive order may need some tweaking, it is concerning that so many higher education leaders are dismissing the entire proposition as preposterous. It certainly isn’t, as Napolitano believes, “misguided.”
Shauli Bar-On is a sophomore writing about sociopolitical issues. His column, “The Bar-On Brief,” runs every other Tuesday.