President Donald Trump’s executive order aimed at improving free inquiry on campus is ambiguous and universities such as Brandeis already promote free speech, according to a statement from Julie Jette, Director of Media Relations at Brandeis.
The order, which Trump signed on live television after claiming that American students and values are “under siege” and that many universities attempt to “impose total conformity,” states that universities must promote free inquiry in order to receive certain federal research and education grants.
Public universities must comply with the First Amendment and private universities—like Brandeis—must promote free inquiry by complying with their stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech, according to the executive order which directs the heads of several federal departments to take “appropriate steps” to ensure that institutions receiving federal grants promote free inquiry. The executive order states that funding associated with federal student aid would not be affected.
But what would define compliance with the executive order or how it would be put into practice is not immediately clear, according to the statement from Jette.
“This executive order is a solution in search of a problem,” Jette said in the statement, quoting another statement from the Association of American Universities (AAU) President Mary Sue Coleman.
“The free and open exchange of ideas and information is already a fundamental cornerstone of the educational mission of America’s leading research universities, and our institutions are fully committed to the protection and preservation of this proud heritage of debate and discussion,” the AAU statement referred to by Jette said.
“Brandeis will continue to abide by our Principles of Free Speech and Free Expression,” according to Jette, referencing the six-point document outlining the university’s policies on free speech, which was adopted earlier this year.
Daniel Breen (LGLS), a professor of legal studies at Brandeis, said in an email to The Brandeis Hoot that “the text of the Order itself really does not seem to accomplish anything terribly new” since universities were required to promote free inquiry in order to receive federal grants even before the executive order.
Brandeis “probably need not worry about losing any funding” as long as it sticks to its Principles of Free Speech, he said.
He told The Hoot that his impression is that Brandeis has been keeping to its stated principles. He used a lecture in April 2017 by Dinesh D’Souza, a provocative right wing speaker and political documentarian, as an example of someone who “has a political outlook that may not be common on campus” but has engaged in free inquiry on campus “without incident.”
On D’Souza’s YouTube channel, the video of his lecture in front of a large group of Brandeis students, who engage the speaker after his talk in a Q&A, is titled “D’Souza embarrasses leftists at Brandeis U.”
With the executive order, Breen told The Hoot, “There is always the danger of selective enforcement—that is, in order to play to its base, the [Trump] administration might seize on particular incidents of campus protests to punish universities where progressive dissent is particularly strong.”
Trump signed the order after inviting a handful of students and recent graduates, all from public universities, to speak about their experiences. One student from Miami University in Ohio was required to hang “trigger warnings” to show her pro-life display on campus. Another student, from University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was “berated and cursed at” by staff, according to Trump, while at an event representing Turning Point USA, a conservative group. A student at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College was restricted to “free speech zones” when passing out Valentines with religious messages.
“Today we are delivering a clear message to the professors and power structures trying to suppress dissent and keep young Americans—and all Americans,” Trump said, naming the students who spoke about their experiences, “from challenging rigid far-left ideology.”
Brandeis has had run-ins with controversy over free speech in the past. In fall of 2017, the cancellation of a campus theater production sparked controversy and garnered an open letter from FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization which protects the rights of students and faculty members at American universities.
Other Boston area colleges have also faced controversy and criticism over free speech. Harvard University, for example, made FIRE’s list of “10 worst colleges for free speech” in both 2017 and 2018. Brandeis last made FIRE’s list of worst offenders in 2014 for disinviting Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a commencement speaker after students protested her views on Islam. University of Massachusetts Amherst made FIRE’s list the year before.
In a statement about the executive order, FIRE—which calls itself a nonpartisan organization—stated that it “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.”
In addition to trying to improve free speech, the executive order also contained provisions aimed at increasing universities’ transparency and accountability on issues of affordability and student loans.