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Our Opinion: Trump order may end hostile climate for campus speech

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Could the president known for his turbulent relationship with the media and strident criticism of negative news stories become a free-speech savior?

In a bombshell pledge during a two-hour speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday, President Donald Trump said he’d put a stop to campus censorship by starving colleges of federal aid if they fail to safeguard free speech rights.

Trump greeted Hayden Williams, a conservative activist in the CPAC crowd who was punched in the face during a Turning Point USA club registration drive at the University of California at Berkeley on Feb. 19. Campus police later arrested Zachary Greenberg, the man accused of attacking Williams.

“If they 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,” Trump said, according to media accounts of the CPAC address.

Trump said he plans to sign an executive order requiring colleges that receive federal funding to “support free speech.”

Details on the proposed order are scant. It’s unclear whether the rule would apply only to public universities, which are bound by the First Amendment but often don’t follow it, or whether private colleges that receive federal funds would also be subject to the requirement.

A recent survey of 466 American colleges and universities showed that just 9 percent earn the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s green-light rating, meaning they do not maintain any written policies that limit free speech. FIRE said 61.2 percent are yellow-light schools, which have vague or broad rules that could be used to punish free expression, and 32.3 percent have red-light policies that clearly and substantially restrict speech.

FIRE, the nation’s preeminent advocacy group for college First Amendment and due process issues, is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“While we are glad that this important national issue has the president’s attention, we do not currently have any more information on the details of the executive order,” FIRE said in a Saturday statement posted to its website. “We are looking forward to learning more about this initiative in the coming days.”

Some free speech advocates are skeptical that Trump, who’s previously sought to “open up our libel laws” so that media outlets could be sued for publishing unflattering stories, is the right person to intervene.

“The visage of the most congenitally anti-free-speech administration in American history making a series of decisions as to which campus conduct is pro- or anti-free speech is more than alarming,” First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams told The New York Times.

Though Trump’s bombast on press freedom has been troubling, it has not resulted in any public policy changes. For that reason, we’re more bullish on an executive order than Abrams.

Colleges have a free-speech problem. It’s been documented in dozens of studies, and while riots like the February 2017 free-for-all over conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos that caused $100,000 in damage to the UC Berkeley campus have been rare, the attitude that enables them is too ubiquitous for our comfort.

Some campus activists — and even some nutty professors — wrongly equate offensive speech with physical violence and believe people, particularly members of marginalized groups, have the right to attack speakers with whom they disagree. Many colleges label innocent, inadvertent verbal slights as “microaggressions,” and believe an administrative investigation is warranted whenever speech hurts someone’s feelings.

Public colleges and universities can be sued for violating students’ First Amendment rights, but without pro-bono representation, that course of action is usually cost-prohibitive. Sprawling state institutions with multimillion-dollar endowments, not undergrads straining under student loans, should bear the burden of ensuring constitutional compliance.

Private colleges are free to restrict speech and treat their adult students like children if they wish, but they shouldn’t be eligible for any federal grant or loan funding. If Title IX applies to private schools receiving public money, why shouldn’t the First Amendment?

Like FIRE, we don’t endorse laws or orders before they’re written. But we support the concept of executive action to ensure students, professors and visitors can speak their minds without sanctions.

Trump may not have a sterling record on free speech issues, but stamping out campus censorship from coast to coast would be one heck of a way to turn the corner.

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