Free speech on college campuses is once again taking center stage in national headlines following President Trump’s Executive Order on Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities, signed Thursday, March 21, 2019. Most, if not all, colleges and universities are already complying with their responsibilities to protect students’ expressive rights, utilizing appropriate content-neutral time, place, and manner guidelines. However, the threat of as-yet-unknown action by federal agencies that award significant research grant funds to institutions may result in a restriction, rather than an expansion, of intellectual diversity on college campuses.
The Executive Order does not detail either a mechanism for action by the 12 agencies named or provide any information about determination of sanctions, leaving institutions awaiting further clarity while the various agencies from which they receive grant funds establish their own processes. While one may hope that the leadership within each agency will come together under the guidance of the Office of Management and Budget to create a uniform set of criteria to be used across all agencies, administration officials have said “it’s more likely that each agency would issue guidance tailored to its particular grant programs,” which may result in different processes and requirements for each agency.
Far from squelching free speech and intellectual diversity, campuses across the country host events with guests who speak on a wide variety of topics and who hold a diversity of views and opinions, challenging attendees to broaden their perspectives and engage in deliberative discourse. The vast majority of this activity occurs without issue or protest. Recent events occurring on college campuses, including the incident highlighted at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference meeting by President Trump, have not involved either students or institutional actors. While these incidents make for sensational and memorable headlines, they are far from the norm on most college campuses.
Generally, governmental mandates to regulate institutional actions related to speech on campus in the name of protecting free speech risks creating a chilling effect on speech. Oversight by external actors to ensure that rights are not infringed upon is appropriate, however interference by those actors without understanding of the nuance of campus culture risks doing more harm than good.
Concerns related to intellectual diversity, predicated on a belief that colleges and college faculty intentionally or inadvertently cause conservative voices to self-censor, have also prompted state legislation designed to prohibit free speech zones on campus and remove the ability of college administrators to disallow speakers invited to campus by any student, faculty, or officially recognized group. NASPA’s policy and advocacy team previously detailed the major model state legislation related to free speech that began appearing in January 2017. So far in 2019, we are tracking 37 pieces of state legislation related to free speech, 33 of which pertain to campus policies around free speech and 4 of which pertain more narrowly to the protection of student journalists. Of the 33 relating to free speech, five would require campuses to create and publish policies regarding free expression activities on campus without further requirements to restrictions, one (IL HR 50) condemns restrictive free speech policies and urges institutions with such policies to reverse their decisions, and one (FL SB 1744) would require an annual campus survey to assess “the extent to which competing ideas, perspectives, and claims of truth are presented and the extent to which members of the university community feel safe and supported in exploring and articulating their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.”
The remaining 26 bills in 15 states would require institutions to designate all outside areas of campus as traditional public forums or otherwise prohibit the designation of free speech zones. Some include additional restrictions related to institutions’ ability to disinvite speakers, assess fees for anticipated security related to possible protest activity, or prohibit campus leaders from speaking on “public policy controversies of the day”. As of spring 2018, free speech zones have been banned by state legislation in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia; legislation signed on March 20, 2019 also bans free speech zones in South Dakota. Campuses using free speech zones may wish to review their policies along with those from institutions who no longer rely on free speech zones, such as the University of Central Florida or the University of North Carolina Greensboro, in anticipation of state action.
Student affairs professionals are encouraged to reach out to legislators to express their concerns with legislation under consideration that would limit the time or ability of institutions to ensure campus safety. When large protests and counter-protests are expected to occur, college and university leaders spend countless hours planning and organizing both campus and community resources to ensure, above all, the safety of our students. These unexpected and sometimes sudden protests involving free speech force college and university leaders to expend resources to keep the peace instead of investing in students' education. Therefore, as a responsible steward of our public funds, NASPA urges policymakers to consider the student safety and funding implications for any legislation requiring college campuses to allow any and all to speak in campus buildings or grounds.
Image credit: Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net); retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
 The 12 agencies named in Section 3(b) of the Executive Order are the Departments of Defense, the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Transportation, Energy, and Education; the Environmental Protection Agency; the National Science Foundation; and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
 California AB 1571, Connecticut HB 5113, Hawaii HB 1227, Texas SB 880, and UT HB 158.
 Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota (enacted on March 20, 2019), Texas, and Washington.
 Sample letters related to legislation in most states included in this post are available on the 2019 National Student Affairs Day of Action website.