Trump has said he will issue an executive order requiring higher education institutions to play by free speech rules or else lose federal research dollars.
While the details are unknown and who knows if he will do it much braying has ensued.
Even at the University of Chicago, the paradigmatic free-speech university, the university president has spoken out in opposition, arguing that a heavy federal hand will hinder the efforts of reasonable people on campuses to figure things out for themselves.
He gets it half right. Brute force is usually not the first choice, and can backfire. It would be good if Trump were mindful of the possible ricochet effects. But c’mon–other than a very few places like Chicago the track record of administrators is not good. There is essentially zero basis for an argument that universities will self-reform any time soon.
So we may need free speech advocates to mix it up on this one. Alas, some people you’d think would favor free speech are getting all muddled up themselves. Take libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, who argues in this article as follows:
I’m all for free speech, whether for public or private schools. But the fight has to be won in the hearts and minds of students and workers, not by the federal government.
Libertarians, like some college presidents, always seem to half-get it, and they usually miss the bigger half. We have constitutional protection of free speech so that government can enforce its terms when needed. Duh.
I am sympathetic enough with libertarian ideas that I can see why a threat to withhold research dollars from private institutions might well be viewed as too crude, given that the First Amendment does not reach that far.
But publics? Cowan himself admits that a lot of public universities are not living up to their constitutional obligations. Rather than hound them one by one through the courts why not just set a clear standard–based on the freakin! constitution fer chrissakes — of what public universities must do or else?
The main correct criticism of university leaders is straightforward: Too often, they do not have the courage to defend free speech. I would suggest, however, that they are more or less rational agents, making concessions to the forces of political correctness because their jobs demand it. They serve up weak, apologetic responses because they fear something worse — escalating protests or further incidents. I think it unlikely that any federal law will strengthen their resolve.
Are you kidding me? It’s not a federal law that we are talking about. A plain old law might well be flouted. But we are here talking about drying up research funds. Who cares if student affairs administrators were to resent federal intrusion? Get the research faculty and senior administration by the balls and hearts and minds will follow.