A White House forum highlighted concerns about free speech on college campuses, while scholars told Bloomberg Law they were skeptical of the Trump administration’s involvement.
The “academic campus left is shutting down discourse and dialogue, and this administration is standing on the side of free speech,” Charlie Kirk, who interviewed President Donald Trump as part of the “Generation Next” summit, told Bloomberg Law at the March 22 event. Kirk is the executive director of Turning Point USA, a conservative organization.
The Department of Justice has continued to focus on the issue of free speech on college campuses since Attorney General Jeff Sessions emphasized the agency’s commitment to the issue last year.
“We are seeing incredible cases around the country” involving violations of students’ First Amendment rights, Sarah Isgur Flores, director of public affairs for the Department of Justice, said at one of the event’s panel discussions.
Flores highlighted cases in which the DOJ supports students asserting First Amendment claims at state schools, including a lawsuit alleging that the University of California at Berkeley applies a double standard toward campus speech, Young Ams. Found. v. Napolitano.
The Justice Department’s involvement is part of a “weaponization of the First Amendment by conservatives,” which is also being used in the areas of campaign finance and commercial speech, Robert C. Post, a professor at Yale Law School, told Bloomberg Law in an interview.
The “campus free speech crisis narrative is based more on feelings than it is on facts,” though there are problems such as some conservative students feeling the need to self-censor, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, a political scientist who has written about the issue, told Bloomberg Law in an interview.
“We have campuses where you have a vast majority” of those who “want free speech,” and suggestions that campuses largely oppose the president are “highly overblown,” Trump said.
DOJ’s Flores thanked Tyson Langhofer of Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal organization, for its work on behalf of students in free speech cases.
“We’re very grateful for this administration’s support and weighing in on the cases that we’re filing on First Amendment freedoms on campus,” Langhofer told Bloomberg Law at the event.
Those cases include Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, in which a student at Georgia Gwinnett College says he wasn’t allowed to distribute Christian literature on campus except for certain free speech zones covering a small fraction of the campus.
The administration has been “much more proactive in recognizing the issue” of campus speech than previous administrations, Langhofer said.
Sachs and Post said they disagreed with the administration’s involvement in campus speech controversies.
The administration appears to be treating the issue of campus speech “as more of a partisan or political issue than one that really deserves the attention it’s been getting,” Sachs said.
For example, the number of incidents of conservative speakers being prevented from appearing on college campuses is small relative to the number of campuses in the U.S. where no incidents have occurred, he said.
Polling data does suggest that some conservative students feel that they can’t express themselves as openly as liberal students on campus, Sachs said.
But solving the problem of self-censorship is difficult if not impossible, in part because it’s hard to define, he said.
Post, of Yale, said the administration’s involvement is “a terrible idea” partly because it’s based on a misapplication of First Amendment protections against content discrimination.
Content discrimination is a necessary part of a university education, Post said.
Students are required to speak in class about the subject of that class, for example, he said.
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