President Trump has promised to end federal research grants for universities that don’t “support free speech,” but determining which colleges support a marketplace of ideas can present a kind of political Rorschach test.
Critics have long decried efforts to stifle or disrupt conservative speakers at college campuses, such as the University of California at Berkeley, which cited safety concerns in canceling speeches by right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos in 2017. That same year, a student group also pulled its sponsorship for a speech by Ann Coulter, facing stiff criticism.
But the notedly liberal university, which was plagued with violence by mostly off-campus activists in 2017, has since hosted several conservative speakers such as Ben Shapiro, Candace Owens and Rick Santorum, and has paid for their security details.
“In the last year alone, this university spent more than $4 million to ensure that our conservative students could safely and successfully hold events on campus and invite speakers of their choice to these events,” UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said in an email.
What’s more, in the Feb. 19 assault on conservative organizer Hayden Williams, university officials denounced the violence and called for upholding free speech, while campus police worked with Berkeley law enforcement to identify and arrest the suspect — Zachary Greenberg, who, like Mr. Williams, is not a student at the university.
“If [colleges] want our dollars, and we give it to them by the billions, they’ve got to allow people like Hayden and many other great young people and old people to speak,” Mr. Trump said this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington.
However, Lynn C. Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, questions how the university itself can be blamed — and punished — for the incident.
“Hayden Williams, an outside speaker, is invited to campus, is allowed to speak, and somebody — Zachary Greenberg — hits him and is arrested immediately. What could they do? What could they have done to provide further protection?” Ms. Pasquerella told The Washington Times.
“The absurd allegations regarding UC Berkeley’s support for free speech and all of its students, regardless of their perspectives, have no basis in fact,” said Mr. Mogulof.
At CPAC, Mr. Trump vowed to issue an executive order that would cut off federal funding for research grants awarded to universities that don’t support free speech on their campuses.
“We reject oppressive speech codes, censorship, political correctness and every other attempt by the hard left to stop people from challenging ridiculous and dangerous ideas,” the president said. “Instead, we believe in free speech, including online and including on campus.”
The White House declined to provide specifics or a timeline for an executive order.
Several states, including Florida and Colorado, have banned restrictive “free speech zones” on college campuses, and several universities have adopted the “Chicago statement,” an affirmation of free expression’s importance to higher learning. An executive order would be an additional tool to scrutinize schools on free speech issues.
“This is a false crisis narrative that has been created by President Trump and his administration,” Ms. Pasquerella said. “Everybody is concerned about First Amendment issues and freedom. You can’t have a liberal education without this free exchange.”
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that academic centers perform $35 billion in research and development annually for the federal government. Small technical schools, state-run colleges and big-league research institutions such as Johns Hopkins University are among the sources of studies on topics such as nanotechnology and literacy teaching in elementary schools.
For many large state colleges, discussions about free speech on campus have long been couched in partisan terms. J.B. Bird, a spokesman for the University of Texas at Austin, described a visit this fall by conservative commentator Charlie Kirk, who offered students an opportunity to debate him.
“It’s hard to experience from the outside, but there was a great free speech exchange between students and Kirk,” Mr. Bird said.
Near the event’s end, a student who disagreed with Mr. Kirk threw a cup of water on an event staff member. Campus police “immediately swooped in” to take the student to the side and converse with him, Mr. Bird said. The student was charged with a class C misdemeanor, but some media outlets jumped on the incident.
“The whole event showed you that there was really positive interaction and [it was] a great example of freedom of speech in action,” Mr. Bird said. “But different people characterize the event differently.”
• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at email@example.com.
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