Eric Wang

Days after President Donald Trump issued an executive order to protect “free and open debate” on college campuses, legal experts interviewed by the News speculated that the new set of rules could threaten Yale’s federal funding.

Per Trump’s executive order, universities must “promote free inquiry” to be eligible for grants from the departments of Education, Defense and Health and Human Services, among other agencies. It remains unclear how the executive order will be enforced, including what standards would be used to adjudicate whether institutions are protecting free speech and which federal agencies would have such a role.

Yale has frequently faced allegations of violating free speech since an email from former Associate Master of Silliman College Erika Christakis unleashed a series of protests and heated conversations that received national attention in 2015. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education gave Yale a yellow speech code rating, which means that the University has policies that could “too easily be used to restrict protected expression.” According to a report from the Yale Corporation’s institutional assessment published in August, many Yale alumni are worried about free expression on campus, fearing that self-censorship may compromise an open intellectual environment.

“The executive order is likely to have implications for Yale, as the university receives funding from federal agencies covered in the [executive order],” Emily Chamlee-Wright, president of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University wrote in an email to the News. “The practical consequences will come as soon as someone claims that the university is not adhering to the First Amendment, which will put federal funding in jeopardy. Over time, we are likely to see federal authority and oversight become more and more prescriptive, leaving major stakeholders at the university level (faculty, administrative leaders, trustees) with less oversight authority than they had enjoyed previously.”

Associate Vice President for Federal and State Relations Richard Jacob declined to comment for the story. The president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education did not respond to request for comment.

In an interview with the News, Bradley Smith, the chairman of the Institute for Free Speech, said that while the details on how the policy would be enforced have yet to be released, Trump’s executive order will force University administrators to scrutinize their institution’s free speech guidelines to avoid losing federal funding. Though Professor Brendan Cantwell of Michigan State University’s Department of Educational Administration agreed that the University potentially has a lot to lose because Yale receives many federal grants, he added that the implications of the order are “more symbolic than practical.”

“It’s not clear from the executive order what would constitute a violation of speech and how aggressively the policy would be enforced,” Cantwell said. “But it at least temporarily ramps up the political heat about the issue. This is a symbolic political act by the president. It energizes political groups that are interested in highlighting what they perceive to be a stifling environment for speech.”

In an email to the News, Chamlee-Wright said private universities like Yale enjoy more leniency on how they regulate and protect speech. While public universities have always been bound by the First Amendment, private universities only risk losing federal funding if they violate stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech after Thursday’s executive order, Chamlee-Wright explained.

In an email to the News, University President Peter Salovey defended Yale’s position on freedom of expression on campus, calling it “clear and unwavering.” He added that the University expects all members of the community to abide by Yale’s long-standing policies that protect freedom of expression, which is outlined in the much-discussed Woodward Report published in 1974. Free expression is essential to Yale as an intellectual community, regardless of whether it is conservative, liberal or otherwise, Salovey explained.

Soon after the racial protests that consumed campus in 2015, Salovey penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal advocating for the importance of free expression.

“In the course of all the events and discussions of the past year, the Yale administration did not criticize, discipline or dismiss a single member of its faculty, staff or student body for expressing an opinion,” Salovey wrote. “Nor have we allowed any member of the community to disrupt or otherwise prevent a scheduled speaker from having his or her say. No invitation to any speaker has been withdrawn as the result of concerns about viewpoint or potential disruption.”

In the wake of controversies that called into question Yale’s commitment to free expression, Salovey has continued to laud the University’s protection of the First Amendment in the press. He penned a similar op-ed for The New York Times in 2017, and the University published a statement on its commitment to free expression last June, shortly after a white graduate student called the Yale police on a black graduate student who was sleeping in a Hall of Graduate Studies common room.

But in an interview with the News, Smith, who is the chairman of the Institute for Free Speech, argued that free speech is not protected at Yale and that administrators should do more to foster an environment where everyone feels comfortable to voice their opinion.

“An impression one gets of Yale is that while the president may pay lip service advocating for free speech in op-eds, conservative speakers still feel uncomfortable on their campus,” Smith explained. “The president has not backed up his words as strong as he may have.”

Smith cited the comparative lack of students and faculty members with conservative views as an indicator of Yale’s improper protection of free speech. At the signing ceremony last Thursday, Trump explained that his order was directed at “professors and power structures” seeking to prevent conservatives from challenging “rigid, far-left ideology.” According to data from Federal Election Commission filings, 96 percent of donations from Yale professors, lecturers and instructors went to Democratic political campaigns and committees in 2018.

The Woodward Report stated that the Yale community demonstrated “a willingness to … give priority to peace and order and amicable relations over the principle of free speech” from time to time.

“This committee, therefore, finds a need for Yale to reaffirm a commitment to the principle of freedom of expression and its superior importance to other laudable principles and values, to the duty of all members of the University community to defend the right to speak and refrain from disruptive interference, and to the sanctions that should be imposed upon those who offend,” the report said.

Serena Cho | serena.cho@yale.edu