EDITORIAL: Trump’s campus free speech order is misguided

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church protest in front of LU’s Page Library. Aug. 19, 2014. (Clarion News photo)

By Will Sites

“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” – Frederick Douglass, 1860.

President Trump on Thursday signed an executive order aimed at ensuring free speech on the campuses of public colleges and universities. Offending institutions may face the loss of federal grant funding.

“Under the guise of speech codes, safe spaces and trigger warnings, these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shut down the voices of great young Americans like those here today,” Trump said at the signing ceremony.

Protecting and promoting free speech has the been the cornerstone of First Amendment rights since its 1791 birth and litigated in many landmark Supreme Court cases, including Gitlow (1925), Tinker (1969), Cohen (1971), and Kuhlmeier (1988). Each one of our journalism students studies the aforementioned cases, especially Tinker and Kuhlmeier, and seems to grasp the realities of speech suppression – on campus and beyond.

The 1971 case Tinker v. Des Moines continues to guide the courts when viewing student rights in public schools. In Tinker, a few students silently protested the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands at school. The students were suspended because the administration feared the armbands would lead to disruption. However, nobody complained – no disruption.

The lower courts concluded that their symbolic speech was not protected. In a 7-2 opinion, the Supreme Court reversed, noting that symbolic speech is protected on public school properties – unless it’s significantly disruptive. The Tinker Test says peaceful religious, political, and symbolic speech must be allowed on public school properties.

The Tinker decision has held for nearly 50 years. Students do not lose their First Amendment rights just because the forum is a public campus. My students seem to be in unison regarding the concept of a university being a home to the marketplace of ideas. Courts have acknowledged that public schools are unique institutions because laws require that we provide access to academics and that we must do so in a safe environment. Seems fair enough.

But courts have also recognized that the “safe environment” must also include polarizing commentary from controversial speakers, campus newspapers, artistic expression, and outspoken professors. In the public forum, there must be no lines drawn to favor one over the other. Equal access. Period.

Trump’s remarks concerning the dangers of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” can be linked to recent events up the road at Mizzou, when a now-disgraced (and subsequently removed) university professor advocated the violent removal of media from a public campus event – including a student-reporter. Although the racially charged incident at Mizzou was a pivotal moment for that institution – and certainly led to changes – I don’t see any reason to believe that a charged atmosphere exists at LU.

Trump’s order makes this professor wonder: Do we really need a presidential order concerning free speech on the Lincoln University campus?

Before I answer, it should be duly noted that during my five years at Lincoln University I have confronted the issue surrounding free speech on campus. In 2014, members of the Westboro Baptist Church arrived on campus to spew their hate for soldiers, LGBTQ, and just about every group that we strive to protect.

Cole County deputies guard Westboro Baptist Church protesters near MLK Hall. Aug. 19, 2014. (Clarion News photo)

Just a few yards from my MLK Hall classroom about a dozen sheriff deputies – supported by Jefferson City and LU police – stayed alert protecting the noisy Westboro protestors from local retaliation and the lawsuits it would bring. The so-called Kansas-based church funds its agenda of hate by suing municipalities and others that restrict their speech. My students took photos and reported the scene – a great teaching and learning experience. It was a tense few hours, but in the end nobody from LU tried to stop them. Free speech won the day, not Westboro. That’s an important point.

The problem is that many Americans – young and old – don’t know what “free speech” means, as guaranteed by the First Amendment and defined by the Supreme Court. Journalists and TV commentators frequently say that hate speech is not protected. It is. I rarely hear anyone talk about “fighting words” and the defining court cases (Brandenburg, Cohen, et al.), or public school censorship cases (Kuhlmeier, Morse, etc.). Until we know what we’re talking about, our argumentative GPS will never steer us towards the marketplace of ideas.

In 1957 the U.S. Supreme Court decided a landmark case involving public university professor Paul Sweezy and his lectures concerning Marxism and socialism. Sweezy, under pressure by state investigators and school officials, declined to provide information about his views and classroom material. In a plurality opinion by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court held that Sweezy’s lectures may not be politically and academically palatable, but they are protected.  

“The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident,” wrote Warren in the Sweezy decision. “Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding, otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.”

President Trump, you don’t need to monitor the schoolhouse free-speech gate. We’ll keep it open on our own, thank you.

(Will Sites, assistant professor of journalism at Lincoln University, teaches news reporting and writing, media law, journalism history, public relations, investigative reporting, and drone journalism. He is the adviser to the Clarion News, the oldest HBCU campus newspaper in the U.S.)

LUPD officers near the MLK Hall parking lot. Aug. 19, 2014. (Clarion News photo)
Westboro protesters mix with opposing views near Page Library on the LU campus. Aug. 19, 2014. (Clarion News photo)

About The Clarion News

Campus and community news produced by journalism students at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo.
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