Free speech and federal dollars

Grant Addison writes on the White House’s proposed executive order “requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research dollars:”

Most major colleges and universities, including the majority that receive federal research funds, maintain speech codes and other restrictive policies that are unconstitutionally overbroad, hopelessly vague, enable viewpoint discrimination, or otherwise threaten academic freedom and First Amendment principles. For example, Middlebury College’s general conduct standards state that “behavior that … demonstrates contempt for the generally accepted values of the intellectual community is prohibited.” Such nonsensical language means that any view a campus bureaucrat deems to violate “generally accepted values” may be officially banned. These censorious policies have created a chilling effect on campuses. In one survey conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, for example, 54 percent of students reported they “have stopped themselves from sharing an opinion in class at some point since beginning college.” …

Thanks to the efforts of the organizations such as FIRE, Speech First, and Heterodox Academy, there’s been some small improvement of late in the state of free speech and academic freedom on campus. But a slight amelioration doesn’t mean the problem has been solved, and there’s no reason not to think that, absent a different incentive structure, situations on campus couldn’t again worsen. After all, as FIRE often points out, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech at public colleges and universities, and plenty of those still restrict speech and expression every day with impunity. Moreover, none of this changes the fact that the conditions for high-quality research and academic learning are those grounded in First Amendment principles and academic freedom and should be expected at a university. 

At least in theory, then, an executive order tying federal research funding to free speech could have a healthful effect on higher education. …

While individual institutions are and should be free to set their own ideological compasses, the size and nature of the federal investment gives taxpayers a clear stake in ensuring that colleges and universities that accept federal research funds take free inquiry seriously by respecting academic freedom and protecting free speech. Therefore, executive action should center on protecting and promoting these principles. 

In general terms, this means an executive order stipulating that, to be eligible for federal research funds, colleges and universities must commit to free speech and academic freedom and, as a contractual requirement, must uphold this commitment or else risk losing funds or eligibility status.

I’ve been supportive of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education since learning about them ten or so years ago. What is needed is more than an executive order.

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