Free speech on college campuses

President Donald Trump speaks at Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md., Saturday, March 2, 2019. Caroyln Kaster / AP Photo 

Ohio universities weigh in on Trump’s executive order

President Donald Trump signed an executive order March 21, which states it will “improve free inquiry, transparency and accountability” at colleges and universities. Trump claims Executive Order 13864 

will also address the financial burden college poses to American families.

The order makes information “about the average earnings and loan repayment rates of former students who received federal student aid” available and readily accessible to the public and prospective students.

The order specifically states the federal government will “encourage institutions to foster environments that promote open, intellectually engaging and diverse debate, including through compliance with the First Amendment for public institutions and compliance with stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech for private institutions.”

The order has drawn scrutiny from universities, student organizations and national organizations due in part to its requirement of public universities to follow the First Amendment, which universities are already required to do by law.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a statement shortly after Trump signed the order.

“This executive order doesn’t do much with regard to free speech. Instead, it tells public universities to abide by the First Amendment, as they are already required to do, and private universities to abide by their existing policies,” wrote Kathleen Ruane, a senior legislative counsel with the ACLU, in a press release. “We will closely monitor how federal agencies choose to enforce this order, as that will be critical to assessing the order’s effectiveness as well as its constitutionality.

“Such scrutiny will be especially critical in light of the partisan nature of the administration’s rollout of this executive order. Censorship and speech restrictions on campus are not partisan issues and they impact students across the ideological spectrum.”

The Association of Public Land-grant Universities (APLU) also released a statement.

“The campus free speech executive order signed today (March 21) is a very concerning federal overreach,” APLU President Peter McPherson said. “Under this executive order, politically appointed department and agency heads have been directed to take action that could … strip or block federal research funding from universities they subjectively believe aren’t adequately permitting the diverse debate of ideas. While enforcement could be challenged in court, this executive order is deeply disturbing on many levels.

“All of this is not to say public universities are perfect. Universities are often faced with limited information, passionate and provocative speakers and even threats to public safety. There is a legal system to ensure the First Amendment is upheld. To inject political decision makers based in Washington into the mix would turn this entire process on its head.”

Sarah Bednarski, Bowling Green State University’s (BGSU) director of marketing and communications, wrote in an email that BGSU “remains committed to protecting the open exchange and debate of ideas and opinions — a bedrock principle of both public higher education and the U.S. Constitution. This includes the right to assemble and freedom of speech as defined by the First Amendment.”

Bednarski also noted BGSU cannot shield individuals from ideas they may find unwelcome. She assured the university will ensure all demonstrations are done safely and that all laws and university policies are observed.

Cristine Boyd, the University of Akron’s director of media relations, encouraged students to review the process for reserving outdoor space and the university policy on public forums.

Eric Mansfield, the executive director of university media relations at Kent State, said, “We will continue our longstanding and unwavering commitment to free speech and civil dialogue.”

Case Western Reserve University and The Ohio State University did not respond to requests for comment.

Members of some student organizations have expressed their skepticism of the executive order.

“The executive order put forth by President Trump was not as much a way to protect the voices of students, but more so a front of power,” said Alexis Atwater, the president of the Kent State College Democrats.

“It was said during his speech regarding the executive order that he was trying to protect conservative student voices from the inherently liberally minded professors and university administration. This executive order seemed extremely pointless and unnecessary, seeing as universities already have rules about free speech on their campuses.

“On our campus in particular, we see how student groups of all kinds exercise their right to free speech by holding rallies, protests, even just normal org meetings. 

“Groups on both sides of the political spectrum have done these things and will continue to do them, so I do not see the executive order impacting our campus in a significant way.”

Rachel Walker, the president of Kent State’s College Republicans, expressed similar sentiments. 

“We do not think it will change anything at Kent State University,” she said. “We believe Kent State, under President Warren, has done a great job at supporting free speech on campus.”

However, some students land on the opposite end of the spectrum regarding their opinions on the executive order.

“Our organization is very excited about the new executive order allowing free speech on college campuses,” Michael Heil, the president of Liberty Hangout at Kent State, said in an email. “Some students that were in the White House are people our national organization has worked with before.”

Liberty Hangout is a conservative student organization.

The students to whom Heil is referring are Monte Mark, who is part of an organization called Triggered Millennials — a gun-advocacy group — and Joseph Gatti, a former writer for Liberty Hangout National.

“So as the president talked to these students to understand college campus bias, it was great for us to see his order as the final response,” Heil said. “Looking forward, the order is there but it is up to organizations across the country to challenge universities and to make sure they are following it. Colleges will continue to censer (sic) until they are challenged. As well as many states will probably challenge it in court. Overall it’s a great thing to see but only time will tell to see how universities respond.”

In September 2018, Kent State alumna Kaitlin Bennett visited the main campus to host open-carry gun walk to spark a conversation about open carry on college campuses.

The organized walk turned into a standoff on the university Esplanade as counterprotestors, gun rights activists and hundreds of police officers confronted one another.

Later in  November, Bennett and Liberty Hangout planned a speaking event to further the dialogue of open carry on college campuses.

Liberty Hangout sued Kent State when the university imposed security fees of $1,800 to the organization’s event.

Judge John Adams of the U.S. District Court Northern District of Ohio blocked the university from charging fees to Liberty Hangout. Adams was concerned that imposing the fees would have an effect on the students’ and Bennett’s free-speech rights.

In January 2018, Richard Spencer and Michael Peinovich, who goes by his pseudonym Mike Enoch, inquired about speaking at the university on May 4, 2018 in the Student Multicultural Center about the May 4, 1970, shootings and the “violent left-wing Antifa protestors.”

At the time, seven college campuses denied Spencer’s requests to speak, including Ohio State, which listed security concerns as the reason it denied him access.

The Southern Poverty Law Center website identifies Spencer and Peinovich as white nationalists and members of the alt-right.

Mansfield responded to the request, saying the university was “unable to accommodate” their visit because the end of the academic year was an “exceptionally busy time.”

Kent State also told Spencer a student group or university department would have to sponsor him in order to speak.

Spencer responded by threatening to sue Kent State, saying its policies were “unconstitutional.” In March, he withdrew his threats to sue and no longer pursued a conversation with Kent State.

David Williams is a senior reporter. Contact him at [email protected].

Brandon Bounds is a senior reporter. Contact him at [email protected]