Washington University responds to free speech executive order

| News Editor

Washington University reaffirmed its commitment to free speech in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order issued Thursday.

The executive order aims “to enhance the quality of postsecondary education by making it more affordable, more transparent, and more accountable.” The order emphasizes promoting free speech on college campuses and ties a university’s ability to do so to its receipt of federal funding.

Many higher education institutions, including the Association of American Universities and the American Council on Education, believe the executive order is unnecessary as universities already foster free expression and open debate.

A representative from the University wrote in a statement that Washington University has always been “firmly committed to the principles of free expression” and agrees with the executive order that “free inquiry is an essential feature of our nation’s democracy, and it promotes learning, scientific discovery, and economic prosperity.”

“We join with our partner institutions in the Association of American Universities in reaffirming our position that ‘open and robust debate are the bedrock of scientific and societal advancement, and at the very core of our values,’” the statement read. “We look forward to being part of the ongoing public conversation about the important role of higher education in our nation, and to engaging with Congress and the administration to address important concerns, including those regarding affordability and transparency.”

According to Washington University law professor Gregory Magarian, an expert in constitutional law and free speech issues, Trump’s purpose behind the executive order violates the First Amendment.

“The president’s signing statement made clear that the order is intended to discourage what the president called ‘far left ideology’ and to protect only conservatives’ freedom of speech,” Magarian wrote in a statement to Student Life. “Accordingly, the order violates the First Amendment’s bedrock prohibition on viewpoint discrimination by the government.”

Magarian stated that he thinks it very unlikely the executive order itself will accomplish anything new or result in any changes around free speech at the University.

“The danger, however, is that the order’s manifest right-wing bias could cause universities to suppress left-wing speech,” Magarian wrote. “For example, if a right-wing student complained that he felt oppressed because one of his professors or a liberal student group expressed a left-wing view – as right-wing students frequently do – a university might censor the professor or the student group out of fear that the federal government would use the student’s complaint as a basis for denying the university research funding. I have no fear that Washington University would take such an action. Some universities, however, might do so, which is why the First Amendment broadly prohibits government actions that chill the freedom of speech.”

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori White also said that the executive order will not affect any of the University’s practices surrounding free speech.

“[The order is] really focused on universities and making sure universities allow the opportunity for speakers to be able to be invited to campuses and that campuses don’t make decisions to disinvite particular speakers based on the content that somebody’s speaking,” White said. “Again, that’s not anything we’ve ever done at Wash. U. If an organization or student organization wants to bring a speaker on campus, we would work with them to try to make that possible. If there was a speaker where we felt it was important for us to have counterviews we would work with student organizations to make sure we can program that as well.”

According to White, the University selected “Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship” by Nadine Strossen as the book for the 2019 Common Reading Program.

“We selected this book as the common reading to increase students’ understanding of the principles of free speech,” White said. “We will also have a new session during Bear Beginnings focused on providing students with some tools to engage in conversation and dialogue across differences.”

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