Conservatives have fretted over a free speech crisis on college campuses, but President Donald Trump says not to worry because “we have tremendous support.”
At Thursday afternoon’s millennial-geared White House forum Generation Next, Trump took a question about conservatives speaking out on campus from Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative student organization Turning Point USA. Kirk asked Trump what advice he had for “young patriots and conservatives on campus that support your agenda that are being ridiculed and silenced because of administrators that are clamping down on free speech?”
Trump’s response was surprising: “It’s highly overblown,” he said. “Highly overblown.”
But the rest of his answer made clear that Trump saw the question as an attack on his support among young people: “If you look what’s going on with free speech, with the super-left, with Antifa with all of these characters — I’ll tell you what, they get a lot of publicity, but you go to the real campuses and you go all over the country, you go out to the Middle West, you go out even to the coast in many cases, we have tremendous support,” Trump said. “I would say we have majority support.” (Trump won young voters in a few red states with exit polls, but his approval ratings with young Americans have been very low.)
This was an interesting exchange. Being interviewed by a guy whose central claim is that there is an anti-conservative free speech crisis on college campuses, Trump casually rejects the premise, says the issue is "highly overblown," limited to a small number of campuses. pic.twitter.com/agDTBtPCjT— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) March 22, 2018
The idea that free speech, particularly among conservatives, is under attack on college campuses is widespread, and not only on Fox News (it generates plenty of concern from centrist and liberal pundits too). And there have been some glaring examples, such as violent protests at Berkeley last year in response to conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos or the protests at Middlebury against author Charles Murray, that got lots of attention. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to a widespread free speech crisis among young people.
A 2016 survey has shown college students are less likely than the general population to support restrictions on free speech (although a recent survey found that, by a narrow margin, current college students support “a diverse and inclusive society” over “protecting free speech”).
Trump, though, missed the point, and seems to have turned a question meant to elicit some conservative red meat into a chance to brag about his popularity.