Though President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order seeking to “promote free and open debate on college and university campuses,” many University students interviewed by the News said free speech on Yale’s campus was never threatened in the first place.
The executive order, which Trump signed last Thursday, defends the first amendment’s protection of free discourse. Asserting “free inquiry” as fundamental to the nation’s democracy, Trump’s order threatens to pull federal funding from institutions that do not adequately “promote free inquiry.” When announcing the executive order, Trump said that the $35 billion in federal funding to universities “is now at stake.” It remains unclear how the order will be enforced and what standards will be used to judge how well the universities promote free speech.
In recent years, Yale has often found itself in the midst of alleged violations of free speech on campus. But most current students interviewed by the News said that they do not believe their right to free expression at Yale is under threat.
“I certainly don’t think free speech at Yale is threatened,” said Yale Political Union Vice President Krish Desai ’21. “Sometimes we might err on one side or the other while determining the balance between allowing individuals to express divergent opinions and ensuring that people don’t feel uncomfortable, but I’d argue that this is a natural process in any student body.”
Desai added that a “partisan targeted executive order” is not the answer to improving this dynamic, but rather it could be better solved by “having students [with] differing viewpoints engage with each other in a sincere and charitable fashion.”
Eli Sabin ’22, communications director for the Yale College Democrats — who noted that his comments were his own thoughts and not a statement from the group — said that Yale does not suffer from “a free speech crisis.” Although he said he knows that some conservative students on campus feel that their speech is being restricted, Sabin said that this is not an issue the federal government should get involved in.
“The Trump administration most likely drew up this executive order because they know it will play well with the conservative base, who are constantly told by right-wing media personalities like Ben Shapiro and Sean Hannity that colleges are bastions of intolerance and anti-conservative discrimination,” Sabin said.
Yale College Democrats President Timothy White ’20 said that the order is an example of the Trump administration overreaching for the sake of a “fabricated issue.”
White said that a “‘free speech crisis” is predicated on the “false assumption” that “freedom of speech is the same as freedom from consequences [of free expression].”
“When a speaker whose ideology … causes harm to marginalized people comes to speak on a campus, and they are challenged or their event is protested, it is not a restriction on freedom of speech but rather a consequence of their speech,” he said.
Still, Carson Macik ’22, a member of the Federalist Party, said that he believes that the order is “profoundly needed.”
He said that the political culture at Yale “discourages diversity of viewpoints among students and faculty, and generally ostracizes conservative activists working to promote said diversity.”
“Yale, as an institution, does not explicitly ban conservative speech, but it’s death by a thousand paper cuts,” Macik said. “I recognize that Yale, due to its private nature, is not required to uphold free speech, but it should follow in the footsteps of UChicago and liberate the voices of all students regardless of opinion.”
In January 2015, the University of Chicago published the so-called “Chicago principles” arguing that “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive.” In a letter to students accepted to the Class of 2020 in 2016, the University of Chicago College Dean John Ellison also wrote that the university does not “support so-called ‘trigger warnings’” and that the university would not “cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial.”
Macik said that a “prominent tell in determining the intention behind the University’s speech policies” is its “support or implicit rejection of conservative students, faculty and administrators.” He added that Trump’s order is not partisan and “in no way affects certain groups,” but rather affects those who disenfranchise free speech, which in this case “happens to come from the Left’s radical morality enforcement team, an overwhelming number of which dwell in educational institutions.”
Looking beyond the motivations for the order, several students said they doubted the order would be effective in achieving its goal.
Yale Political Union President Elliot Setzer ’20 said that the vague wording of the order “seems more likely to [curtail] campus free speech than to support it.” He said that tying federal research grant money to free speech could cause universities to limit students’ rights to protest campus speakers for fear of losing funding.
Desai also doubted the effectiveness of the order, saying that it is clearly a “direct attack at left-leaning institutions” that could act as a useful partisan tool in the upcoming election, but the vagueness of the order would probably prevent any concrete enforcement.
Yale President Peter Salovey emphasized the importance of free discourse telling the News last week that the University’s position on freedom of speech is “clear and unwavering.”
“It is essential to Yale as an intellectual community, and we expect all members of the Yale community to abide by the University’s long-standing policies that protect freedom of expression,” he wrote in an email to the News. “Free speech is vitally important at Yale, whether it’s conservative, liberal or otherwise.”
During his presidency, Trump has signed 101 executive orders.
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