President Donald Trump signed an executive order requiring colleges to protect free speech, promote an environment that allows for competing perspectives, make federal loan information more accessible and make annual expansions and updates to their College Scoreboard.
Section 3 of the order has garnered most scrutiny, which rules that private or public colleges could risk losing access to federal research grants if they fail to protect the First Amendment right of free speech on campus.
The order also makes different governmental agency heads, along with the director of the office of management and budget, responsible for ensuring institutions that comply with federal free speech laws are appropriately granted access to research funds.
While The Washington Post reported the order was met with concerns over who would classify protected speech, University of Wisconsin law professor Anuj Desai said it is safe to say the order will bring little-to-no change.
Desai said the order was more of a friendly reminder that college campuses are required to uphold free speech.
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“There’s really no change in anything with respect to the legal requirements that institutions of higher education would have to satisfy,” Desai said.
Desai also said a majority of the order was not focused on free speech. Of its six sections, only one was geared toward free speech policies on college campuses.
While Desai believed little will come of the order, he did raise a concern that politically motivated regulation of free speech could become a greater possibility as a result of it.
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Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s director of the office of management and budget who also serves as acting White House chief of staff, has been known to hold strong views in support of free speech on college campuses.
Desai said that while the OMB director does not hold any de facto power in this arena, that doesn’t always transfer over to reality.
“It is like a lot of things in government, where sometimes what matters is who is talking to whom,” Desai said.
UW journalism professor Kathleen Culver expressed similar sentiments that, overall, the order will have a very limited impact.
But Culver did raise the concern of a possible chilling effect of student speech.
“My main concern is whether our students will see it as a reason for them to censor themselves — that they’ll take it as some sort of cue that they should be behaving differently on campus,” Culver said.
Culver also said lingering questions over the executive order and the campus policy it inspires revolve around whether the rules are written and upheld with viewpoint neutrality in mind.
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She emphasized that if they fail viewpoint neutrality standards, it will never survive.
UW’s policies in this area are not expected to change. The Board of Regents approved a policy on academic freedom and freedom of expression in Oct. 2017, long before the Executive Order was signed. In the following year, UW released campus protest policy guidelines.
UW Assistant Vice Chancellor John Lucas said these actions were done in the interest of creating a clear policy that protected speech on both sides of the aisle.
“When protests or counter-protests occur, UW–Madison works with organizers to ensure they are peaceful and holds people accountable when they disrupt events and speakers or violate the law,” Lucas said.
Lucas further emphasized that UW values freedom of speech and inquiry beyond the requirements of the legal obligations it has as a public institution. He cited the variety of speakers UW has hosted over the past year, including several conservatives, who have spoken without disruption.
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Culver said the executive order was a political display more than anything else, as it was issued in response to irregular occurrences campuses. She suggested there exists a possibility that students are being manipulated as political pawns through this executive order.
“One thing that is important to me and that I find really regrettable is that campuses, I fear, are being used as tools in a broader culture war,” Culver said.