Trump’s Push for Free Speech Hits Close to Home

On Saturday, March 2nd, President Donald Trump spoke at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. The resort was hosting the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that weekend, and Trump was the headline speaker.

While scheduled to begin his speech at 11:30 AM and conclude in under an hour, the president didn’t start speaking until noon and finished after 2 PM. Seating space to watch Trump’s speech filled up around 8 AM, meaning that audience members sat in the conference room for over six hours, without food or drink per regulations.

But, in typical Trump fashion, the president delivered a rousing speech that energized his conservative supporters and provided fuel for left-leaning news media. One of the most controversial topics he addressed was the issue of free speech at schools and universities – specifically, its restriction.

“I am proud to announce that I will be very soon signing an executive order requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research funds,” the president declared.

To drive home his point, Trump invited Hayden Williams to join him onstage. Williams is a conservative activist who was tabling for Turning Point USA at the UC-Berkeley campus on February 19th when he was assaulted. Zachary Greenberg, the 28-year-old perpetrator who approached Williams and punched him several times, has been arrested on assault charges and will go to court on April 9th for a pre-trial hearing.

The University of Minnesota has had its own conflicts – albeit less violent – over free speech recently. Last February, conservative groups at the U of M – including Students for a Conservative Voice and Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow – brought popular conservative figure Ben Shapiro to speak on campus.

Shapiro’s speech was initially slated to be held in a building on the main Minneapolis campus, which is where the majority of the university’s students reside and attend classes. However, university administrators later forced the student groups to hold Shapiro’s speech in the student union on the St Paul campus – a facility that had much smaller seating capacity and was less accessible to students living on the main campus.

The necessary relocation of the event frustrated the students who organized it as well as Shapiro himself. In the eyes of many conservative followers and attendees, the administration purposely forced the event to be held at a remote, inconvenient venue as a means of punishing and obstructing conservative viewpoints. Plenty of liberals had spoken on the main campus before.

Conservatives believed that the university’s actions were a violation of students’ free speech rights, and Students for a Conservative Voice (SCV) and the Young Americas Foundation (YAF) swiftly brought a lawsuit against the University of Minnesota. The U of M recently filed for a dismissal of the lawsuit, but their request was denied – a small victory for the students fighting to uphold their First Amendment rights.

Given that Trump’s campus free speech order has not been formally executed, it’s tough to predict exactly how his plans will impact universities. Nevertheless, Trump’s declaration in defense of free speech could not have come at a better time for conservative college students, who are increasingly facing issues of censorship at universities whose students and staff tend to be left-leaning.

Educators who criticized Trump’s plans to issue a free-speech executive order argued that free speech is already protected on college campuses. However, plenty of people – like Hayden Williams and members of SCV – would beg to differ, and they will be anxiously waiting to see what changes Trump can create.