Donald Trump, onetime freedom-of-speech skeptic, wants to protect speech on campus

Trump is now a fan of freedom of speech.
Trump is now a fan of freedom of speech.
Image: Reuters/ Yuri Gripas
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Donald Trump announced plans today (March 2) to position himself as a staunch defender of freedom of speech. In a freewheeling address at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the US president said he would soon sign an executive order that would block colleges and universities from attaining federal research grants unless they guarantee free speech on campus.

“We reject oppressive speech codes, censorship, political correctness, and every other attempt by the hard left to stop people from challenging ridiculous and dangerous ideas. These ideas are dangerous,” Trump said. “Instead we believe in free speech, including online and including on campus.” Trump made the promise shortly after welcoming conservative activist Hayden Williams, who was punched in the face (paywall) at the University of California, Berkeley last month during a recruitment effort.

The US president’s embracement of freedom of speech marks a policy shift, in contrast to years spent disparaging such a concept. In 2015, he said he wanted to “close up” parts of the internet in a bid to combat terrorism, and said that those who protest on the grounds of freedom of speech are “foolish people.”

Meanwhile, the ACLU has a list of attacks Trump has made on the press, including praising a violent attack on a reporter and telling Canadian president Justin Trudeau, “It is frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write.” Trump has also dismissed pleading the Fifth as a refuge “for the mob,” though it now seems likely he may plead it himself. (The Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution protects a person from being “compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”)

There’s a strong possibility that Trump’s proposal would impose its own limits on freedom of speech, warn legal scholars. “Somebody would have to decide which universities were not supporting free speech on campus,” Catherine Ross, a professor in constitutional law at George Washington University, told the Washington Post (paywall). “Some group of Washington civil servants—or maybe even worse, political appointees—would be looking at charges of speech discrimination at various colleges and universities, and labeling them as either acceptable in terms of free speech or not acceptable. And that… is a government interference in speech.”

Trump did not provide details on when he planned to sign the order, but for a president with a long history of criticizing freedom of speech, one executive decision is unlikely to turn him into a stalwart supporter of the practice.