Columns, Opinions

Miller ’19: Free freedom of speech

By
Opinions Editor
Wednesday, March 20, 2019

On March 2, President Donald Trump announced his plan to issue an executive order in favor of free speech at public and private universities. Speaking before the Conservative Political Action conference, Trump outlined his proposal, which would also withhold federal aid to schools that do not comply.

Trump’s crowd, which included many college-age conservatives, roared in approval — names such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Charles Murray and Ann Coulter probably reverberated in their heads. In part, Trump wanted to chasten liberal colleges that he saw as shutting out conservative voices from their campus dialogues.

Trump’s action can be seen as an attempt to normalize right-wing speech and lend credibility to extremists whose views run counter to facts and science. These designs cannot be ignored. Yet, if we champion freedom of speech under the aegis of testing ideas, is it not necessary to at least hear multiple sides of the argument? Thus, within reason, I begrudgingly accept on a theoretical level Trump’s attempt to keep open campus dialogue.

Still, his misguided contingency plan, which uses federal funding as both the carrot and the stick, allows the executive branch of the government to supplant the judiciary and become the de facto arbiter of every form of “free” speech.

It is no secret that Brown mainly brings liberal speakers to campus. A 2018 study found that 94.5 percent of speakers at the University lean ideologically left. This in part reflects on and caters to a majority politically liberal student body. Since the 2018 study, Brown has made a concerted effort to invite more conservative voices, including Jeb Bush and Bill Kristol. While these speakers have received backlash from the community before they arrived on campus, they nonetheless delivered their talks and voiced their opinions to a respectful, if skeptical, audience.

The same has not been true at all universities. At Claremont McKenna College, 250 people blocked entrances to a speech given by Heather Mac Donald, a conservative speaker who has criticized Black Lives Matter and argued for racial profiling. Claremont McKenna suspended five students in charge of the protest for at least a semester. The University of California, Berkeley dominated the news cycle when they canceled Milo Yiannopoulos’s event. Without doubt, it is unfair to compare the messages of Messrs. Bush and Kristol, one a former presidential primary opponent of Trump and the latter an outspoken Trump critic, to the far right-wing positions of Mac Donald and the lightly veiled neo-Nazi palaver of professional provocateur Yiannopoulos.

Should universities allow almost any speaker invited to campus to speak? And if not, how does one establish the proper demarcation point — if any — without engaging in censorship of the ideas worthy of public challenge? Yes, I understand that specific speakers may be so unpalatable to Brown because of specific racist or misogynistic comments or actions. These are the easiest to see as objectionable, and it is my hope that no campus organization would be so out of tune with basic human dignity to invite a speaker that touts the legitimacy of such views.

Yet, if they did, one must balance whether the proper course of action is to ban them from campus or to ignore the speaker. I believe the fulcrum point is the latter — ignore or disprove a speaker rather than risk creating a news storm which provides fodder for the speaker’s narrative of liberal persecution. Nothing would please me more than to have every chair empty in Solomon 101 if a rabble-rousing and illogical Trump mouthpiece came to campus. Students could also boycott particularly odious speakers and host supplementary talks debunking claims made by them. It is also not so simple when such speech goes beyond the indecent to the incendiary — thus using the speech to beguile the audience.

At Brown, we have a theoretical belief about which speakers should be provided a platform at the University. Given Trump’s manifest threat to withhold funding, however, these ideals cannot be separated from their potential practical consequences. Is it worth de-platforming certain speakers at the cost of federal aid or campus autonomy? That is a question we should not be faced with.

The University would be harmed if the federal government jeopardized its funding. According to OpenTheBooks, Brown received $816 million in federal contracts, grants and direct payments between 2010 and 2015. This is no paltry sum next to our $3.5 billion endowment. These federal funds are used for research, tuition and the recruitment of new professors. Certainly, losing federal funds would negatively impact our campus.

Perhaps even more daunting, there are tangible consequences of allowing the government to control our freedom of speech, especially when under the helm of a fickle, biased and easily swayed president with little moral compass or desire to understand political compromise. While Trump claims to support all instances of free speech, he has proven otherwise — banning CNN correspondent Jim Acosta from the White House is just one example of a trove of anti-free speech actions. To Trump, there is little to no difference between voicing your opinion counter to his own and attacking and silencing his voice. Trump shows a propensity to censor specific kinds of speech when college students rightfully protest something, anything, they find objectionable. His arbitration would remove freedom of speech from the democratic process, in which the judiciary branch should decide what constitutes the bounds of free speech.

In a Trumpian world, his word would be absolute and rational argument would be shrouded in secrecy, away from the public discussion. The looming threat of slashing federal funds would only exacerbate the issue and may force universities to make decisions that harm campus culture in favor of protecting their coffers.

Yes, freedom of speech is a positive reality at Brown. It gives students the agency to voice their opinions freely, hear counterarguments beyond their normal echo chambers and thwart false cries of persecution from conservatives. But allowing the federal government a broad mandate to decide what constitutes free speech has frightening policy implications. Thus, we must stop Trump’s executive order in its tracks by promoting freedom of speech on campus.

Trump is beholden to the (Fox) news cycle. If college campuses do not fuel the media narrative, he will most likely not bring it up himself. At Brown, we should stay committed to freedom of speech by allowing speakers to come to campus and, except in the most extreme circumstances, either ignore or actively debate them on points of contention — if only to protect our unfettered right to freedom of speech, without government scrutiny.

Emily Miller ’19 can be reached at emily_miller@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.