Washington Wednesday: Campus free speech

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 3rd of April, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. It’s Washington Wednesday.

In recent years free speech on college campuses has become a major flash point.

PROTESTORS: Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away! Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away!

This is one we reported. Middlebury College, 2017. Students shouted down an invited speaker, the author Charles Murray.

Similar situations have played themselves out at the University of California Berkeley and numerous other college campuses around the country. So some states are moving to take legislative action.

Last week, members of the Ohio legislature heard testimony as it considers a college free speech bill. It’s called the Forming Open and Robust University Minds Act.

Meanwhile, in Kentucky, Governor Matt Bevin signed a bill requiring public colleges to protect freedom of speech on their campuses. It banned so-called “free speech zones.”

And in Iowa, Governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill that says institutions cannot deny resources to student organizations based on their views.

All of that came on the heels of an executive order President Trump signed on March 21st. It addressed several higher education issues, but campus free speech was one of them.

TRUMP: In America the very heart of the university’s mission is preparing students for life as citizens in a free society. But even as universities have received billions and billions of dollars from taxpayers, many have become hostile to free speech and the First Amendment. You see it all the time.

Joining me now to discuss this is Kim Colby. She is the director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom at the Christian Legal Society.

Kim, good morning to you.

COLBY: Good morning, it’s great to be with you.

EICHER: Well, now this executive order does several things, but let’s begin with provisions on free speech, all right?

COLBY: Okay.

EICHER: Set the stage for how this all came about. What are the events that led up to this action of the president on free speech?

COLBY: Well, I think everyone’s aware that there have been a lot of really troubling incidents on university campuses in various parts of the country where invited speakers have not been allowed to give their speeches because a handful of students disrupt their speeches and, in some cases, even some harm—physical harm—has been done to speakers in kind of melees that have accompanied these disruptions.

And so I think a lot of people have been watching what’s happening… and I think that’s what gave rise to this executive order.

EICHER: Alright, well, tell me then, we’ve heard instance after instance of on-campus incidents like these. How does this executive order get at those problems practically speaking?

COLBY: Well, what the executive order does is, really, it sets the policy for the federal government, and it says that it’s going to be the federal government’s policy that universities that receive federal research or education grants—which is most of them—should, and this is a quote, “foster environments that promote open, intellectually engaging, and diverse debate.”

So, basically, the executive order is fairly straightforward. It’s not a lot of detail at all. It sets a very broad framework for saying this is now the federal government’s policy to encourage open and diverse debate on college campuses. And, basically, in the next—I don’t know— six months to a year, the federal government’s administrative branch, the office of management and budget—OMB—and then a dozen of the agencies will be writing policies and regulations that will help carry out this executive order…

EICHER: Well, I am aware of the work that Christian Legal Society has been involved in, standing up for the religious freedom of campus Christian groups. And that’s right in your portfolio of issues, Kim. So what effect do you think this order might have on those cases?  

COLBY: Well, we’re very hopeful that something will be said that will protect religious student groups on campus. Because in many situations—it’s a minority of colleges, but it’s still an important segment of colleges—we have seen religious student groups told that they can’t engage in certain religious speech, that they can’t choose their leaders according to their religious belief. And this type of suppression of religious belief and speech on campus has been going on for about four decades.

So we’re very hopeful that something will come out ofthe Department of Education that just simply says to the universities, ‘Whatever policy you have, you can’t use it to suppress religious groups and their speech and their beliefs.’ And that would be a tremendous step forward, if we could get that after this executive order.

EICHER: Well, clearly, you’d rather have an executive order than not have an executive order, but these executive orders do tend to come and go with the presidents who issue them. Is there anything going on to make these protections more permanent?

COLBY: There are groups that are pushing in the courts on cases. There was a case most recently against the University of Iowa on this issue that Becket Fund was instrumental in winning in the federal district court. And I think there will be several other cases.

And then this executive order, basically, it encourages and orders the departments to do something about the issues that are on campus. So, I think this will be very helpful in maybe getting a regulation that will protect the religious students on campus.

But this is also—I hate to use the term shot across the bow—to the universities, but the universities are in denial. They claim that, really, free speech is being respected on campus, when it’s not.

And they also refuse to recognize their own lack of intellectual diversity among their faculty. And the degree to which conservative students on campuses really do feel silenced—both in the classroom, and on campus. Many conservative students are very reluctant to voice their views. And this hurts everyone. It hurts the liberal students because they don’t learn to defend their views in a free and open debate. And it hurts the conservative students because they’re being silenced.

So I think the executive order itself hopefully will cause some of the university officials to start really looking at what’s happening on their campuses and start being honest about what’s happening on their campuses.

EICHER: Yeah, so literally an educational component here.

COLBY: Yes! [laugh]

EICHER: Well, tell me, now, the ink is only just dry on this executive order. What kind of reception has it received so far?

COLBY: Well, so far I think it’s been very welcomed by groups that are very concerned about what’s happening on campuses.

And one of the reasons I’d like your listeners to understand why this is a good executive order… is that it’s very much along the lines of President Trump’s 2017 executive order to protect free speech and religious liberty in general.

And that order also was very broad and general and didn’t actually order a specific thing at the time, or change the law in some way at the time. But what it did was it told the Department of Justice to help fill in the details. And the Department of Justice, as a result, in October 2017, came out with a, oh, I don’t know, it’s about 20-page memorandum about what the law is about religious freedom and free speech.

And that document has been very helpful in court cases and in addressing… government regulators and encouraging them to do more to protect religious freedom and free speech already.

And so I think this executive order is very much along the same lines as the 2017. And the 2017 has been a great boost to religious freedom, and that’s why we have such great hopes for this executive order.

EICHER: Alright, very good. Kim Colby is director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom at the Christian Legal Society. Kim, thanks so much for your insight.

COLBY: Thanks for caring about this issue.

(Photo/UIG via Getty Images)

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