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Trump’s free speech executive order isn’t about free speech

It’s actually about power — specifically, the conservative attempt to seize it on college campuses.

Anti-racism protestors on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville.
A University of Virginia student protest on August 11, 2018.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

President Donald Trump gleefully pressed on another culture war hot button Thursday afternoon, issuing an executive order that’s supposed to address allegedly serious threats to free speech on America’s college campuses.

The order itself does very little in practical terms: As my colleague Ella Nilsen explains, it basically amounts to reminding universities about existing law. But that doesn’t mean the order is insignificant.

It reflects, instead, the degree to which the conservative movement, joined by a few prominent anti–political correctness crusaders, has created a panic about the limitation of free speech on college campuses — as Trump demonstrated in his signing statement for the order.

“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,” he said.

But there is no campus free speech crisis. Certainly, campuses are not perfect havens of free speech — it really is true that conservatives are underrepresented in campus political discussions — but a few problems do not warrant a major panic. Most of the conversation about campus censorship and free speech violations stemmed from a handful of high-profile incidents, inflated by right-wing campus watchdogs and breathless media coverage about the kids these days, in a country with thousands of college campuses and millions of college students.

But the fact that Trump issued the executive order at all shows just how central universities are in the conservative cultural imagination, and how devoted the current right is to a political vision in which radical professors and left-wing students are responsible for America’s problems. They are so concerned, in fact, that they are willing to endorse the federal government interfering to punish universities they deem insufficiently friendly to conservatives.

That’s because this isn’t a battle about free speech. it’s a fight over political power and cultural control.

The phantom free speech crisis

The relevant portion of Thursday’s executive order instructs 12 federal agencies to ensure that the universities receiving research grants “promote free inquiry.” What this means in practical terms was left unspecified.

The order doesn’t change existing law or regulation. It just sends a message to schools to be extra-careful that they’re following “all applicable Federal laws, regulations, and policies” if they want to keep getting federal dollars.

But when conservatives raise the alarm about a “campus free speech crisis,” they don’t speak in terms of violations of federal law. Instead, they allege that dissenting voices are being muzzled on campus in softer ways: conservative speakers disinvited from campus engagements, or professors fired for expressing controversial opinions.

Certainly there are instances of political censorship on campuses. But the evidence that they are a major problem, one requiring presidential-level attention, is quite thin.

The best work on this front, to my mind, has been done by Acadia University’s Jeffrey Sachs. In a piece published by the center-right Niskanen Center, Sachs marshaled a wealth of data to show that the number of free speech-threatening incidents on US college campuses is small and actually declining. Sachs’s chart of data on campus speaker disinvitations shows that last year, such incidents were at their lowest number in 10 years:

Jeffrey Sachs/Niskanen Center

Similarly, faculty firings over politically controversial speech were down in 2018, and roughly the same number of liberal faculty members were dismissed as conservatives.

Jeffrey Sachs/Niskanen Center

The absolute number of such incidents — even in peak years — is also extremely low. We’re talking about dozens of incidents per year, maximum, at the roughly 3,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States (and nearly all of the attention paid to campus speech issues has focused on four-year colleges).

This isn’t to say that there’s no problem with free speech on college campuses. When I spoke to Sachs over the phone, he told me that he’s genuinely concerned about self-censorship — students and faculty, particularly conservatives, being afraid to express their opinion on campus and thus staying quiet.

But he does not think this problem constitutes a crisis, or that Trump putting federal research dollars on the table in an attempt to solve it is anything other than an extreme overreaction.

“That’s using a howitzer to knock a housefly out of the sky,” he told me.

The real reason Trump is issuing this executive order

One of the founding texts of the modern conservative movement is William F. Buckley’s 1951 tract on his college years, God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom.”

The young Buckley, who would go on to become arguably the most influential American conservative writer in modern history, argues that Yale University functioned as an indoctrination academy — teaching its students not free thought but rather liberal doctrine on issues ranging from religion to economics.

In the years since, Buckley’s vision of the university became a central doctrine of the conservative movement. Conservatives came to believe that universities, along with Hollywood and other cultural institutions, were fatally undermining conservative political efforts to save American political culture. The late provocateur Andrew Breitbart turned this idea into an oft-cited maxim: “Politics is downstream from culture.”

By this, Breitbart meant that the balance of power in day-to-day politics is determined, in the long run, by the cultural ideas that shape the way people approach politics — from Hollywood films with social justice messages to universities teaching left-wing ideas about race and religion to mega-brands like Gillette making ads about “toxic masculinity.” Under this worldview, the power of conservative political organizing is swamped by a culture and society that is trending increasingly liberal.

This led to the creation of conservative institutions to battle this supposed liberal hegemony on college campuses — and the most prominent in recent years has been Turning Points USA, run by Charlie Kirk. TPUSA chapters organize high-profile demonstrations — like dressing students in diapers to protest safe spaces — and brings in intentionally inflammatory speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos to provoke their left-wing opponents. The ultimate goal is illustrating and ultimately breaking liberal control over the academy.

And it’s TPUSA — which has been lobbying for action to support conservatives on campus for some time — that played a major role in giving us the executive order.

“Today’s executive order is the culmination of Turning Point USA’s tireless work to break the left’s stranglehold on campus, a grip that has suffocated the free exchange of ideas and helped indoctrinate an entire generation to hate America, the freest, most prosperous, decent and generous country ever to exist,” Kirk said in a statement. As if to illustrate the point, Trump called out to Kirk — who was in the audience — during the signing ceremony for the event.

Trump’s and Kirk’s comments suggest that actual protection for free speech, regardless of the speaker’s identity, isn’t the core issue here. “I think he [Trump] only cares about a thin sliver of speech,” says Sanford Ungar, the director of Georgetown University’s Free Speech project.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a leading campus free speech group, is reserving judgment on the executive order in case these fears lead to an executive order that ends up actually chilling student rights.

“FIRE will watch closely to see if today’s action furthers the meaningful, lasting policy changes that FIRE has secured over two decades — or results in unintended consequences that threaten free expression and academic freedom,” the organization said in its statement.

Indeed, the conservative “free speech” campaign isn’t limited to a relatively toothless federal executive order. In several states with Republican-controlled governments, we’re seeing what happens when political defenses of “campus free speech” get actual teeth.

State governments have passed laws and issued regulations on the issue, efforts that the New York Times reports are “funded in part by big-money Republican donors” in a “growing and well-organized campaign that has put academia squarely in the crosshairs of the American right.” In Wisconsin, the strictest of these states, rules drafted by the state university’s board of regents allow students to be expelled if they are found to have disrupted the speech of other students three times — a targeting of activists that represents a clear threat to student free speech and political activity.

This is not what a value-neutral, principled defense of free speech looks like. The signing statement was pocketed with comments from conservative students who felt their rights had been repressed, with not a single mention of the professor threatened over a mean tweet about Barbara Bush or the scholar forced to resign for a joke about white genocide.

Instead, Trump’s executive order is part of a broader power play in academia — the right’s decades-long campaign to assert control over what it sees as one of the greatest threats to its political ambitions.

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