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November 14, 2019

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How Trump’s executive order on campus free speech could affect colleges

President Trump signed an executive order Thursday requiring that U.S. colleges seeking federal research funding must certify that their policies support free speech in order to receive it. Amna Nawaz talks to Jerry Falwell Jr., and Georgetown University’s Sanford Ungar about how free expression is constrained on college campuses and what the president’s action will do to change that.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is a question playing out on college campuses across the country. When it comes to free speech, are conservative students held to a different standard than their liberal counterparts?

    Amna Nawaz begins our coverage.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    With a stroke of the pen, President Trump issued an ultimatum to U.S. colleges.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Universities that want taxpayer dollars should promote free speech, not silence free speech.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The executive order signed today requires colleges to certify that their policies support free speech as a condition to receiving federal research grants. It doesn't affect schools' access to federal financial aid for student tuition.

    President Trump first proposed the idea to a gathering of conservatives in Washington earlier this month.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We believe in free speech, including online and including on campus.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    He brought on stage conservative activist Hayden Williams.

  • President Donald Trump:

    If they want our dollars — and we give it to them by the billions — they have got to allow people like Hayden and many other great young people, and old people, to speak.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In February, Williams was recruiting on U.C. Berkeley's campus when he got into an altercation with this man, who then punched Williams in the face. That man was arrested and charged with assault, and the university condemned the attack.

    Williams spoke to the "NewsHour" while in Washington earlier this month.

  • Hayden Williams:

    I think there's a culture on college campuses that sort of promotes one side over the other. And, you know, conservatives are the minority on college campuses across the country.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But the incident reignited the campus free speech debate, with a focus on conservative voices. In 2017, U.C. Berkeley saw a series of protests after conservative voices, some controversial, like Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro, scheduled campus events. Many of the events were either postponed or canceled.

    That October, U.C. system president Janet Napolitano told MSNBC, free speech is an essential part of its core principles.

  • Janet Napolitano:

    I think that we have to do a much better job of educating our young people about what the First Amendment protects, what it means, and how once you start restricting speech, you are on a slippery slope. And so we are educators, and that should be part of our mission.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Even some in the president's own Cabinet, like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, have argued against federal intervention.

  • Betsy DeVos:

    The way to remedy this threat to intellectual freedom on campuses is not accomplished with government muscle. A solution won't come from defunding an institution of learning or merely getting the words of a campus policy exactly right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Today, the Trump administration says it will be holding universities to that mission. Officials say implementation details will be out in the coming months.

    Let's further explore the state of free speech on college campuses with Jerry Falwell Jr. He's the president of Liberty University, and was at the White House today as President Trump signed this executive order. And Sanford Ungar, he's the director of the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University and the president emeritus of Goucher College.

    Welcome to you both. Thank you for being here.

  • Sanford Ungar:

    Thank you.

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    Thank you so much.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Sandy, I want to start with you.

    At your project, you and your team document incidents of free speech being restricted. You wrote an opinion piece, there's an epidemic of challenges to free and open expression.

    Do you support what the president did today?

  • Sanford Ungar:

    I do not think what the president did today has any particular meaning at all, Amna.

    We, at our Free Speech Project at Georgetown, are examining incidents where free expression is challenged around the country in several different categories. We have got more than 200 of them now on our online tracker.

    And what we find is that speech is challenged across the political spectrum. This image, the stereotype, the cliche that it's primarily noble conservative thought that is being challenged by crazy fanatical liberal students and professors just doesn't bear out. The facts don't support it.

    It's been — there are many instances where conservative speech is challenged, and they get a lot of attention. Some of the people that were in your piece are well-known. They go — they expect disruption. They encourage disruption. And they get it.

    But a lot of the disruption of other kinds of speech, mainstream speech, factual speech, liberal speech on campuses, is — it's disrupted, and it doesn't attract the same kind of attention, doesn't have the sort of lobbying force behind it.

    So I don't think the president — I would like to believe that the president wants to protect all speech on campus.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jerry Falwell Jr., I'm going to ask you about that now, because you're speaking from a conservative perspective here. Do you think conservative voices are not supported? Are they banned more?

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    I think former New York City — Mike Bloomberg, in his commencement speech at Harvard a few years ago, said it best, when he said, the faculty and staff at Ivy League schools, 96 percent of them donated to the Obama campaign.

    And so it can't be argued that the vast majority of faculty and staff at most major elitist universities are one-sided in their viewpoints, and it's the liberal side.

    And so how that translates into whether or not they allow free speech, you hear examples all the time of how conservative ideas are just not given the same respect that liberal ideas are given.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, we hear examples all the time, but you heard what Sandy just had to say. Is it — are we just talking about them more because they get more attention?

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    I just don't see how 96 percent are one-sided, and could be fair.

  • Sanford Ungar:

    I'm not sure that's a meaningful statistic.

    And, besides, what is the remedy if you have a lot of professors on campuses sympathetic with Democrats or giving to Democratic causes? What — first of all, I'm not sure…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    Well, Mayor Bloomberg was just…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Sanford Ungar:

    I understand. Well, whether it's Mayor Bloomberg or anyone else, I don't know — he has no special credibility on this matter.

    How would you suggest…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, let me ask you this, if you don't mind.

    Jerry Falwell Jr., let me ask you this.

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In the president's expression today, the idea is that all free speech will be protected. Do you believe that everyone should be granted a platform on university platforms?

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    Yes.

    Tomorrow, Alan Dershowitz is our speaker for our convocation. We have two a week for 10,000 students that attend that particular event. And he — he's just one example. Jimmy Carter was our commencement speaker.

    Bernie Sanders spoke at Liberty. He was given the utmost of respect by the students, even if most students didn't agree with him.

  • Sanford Ungar:

    That's the way it ought to be. There ought to be ideological diversity on campus.

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    Sure.

  • Sanford Ungar:

    When I was president of a small liberal arts college in Baltimore, I made it a point to invite speakers from across the political spectrum.

    And, of course we should do that. And I don't favor shouting down any speakers. But my point is just that there is not just a problem on one side. If you listen to it with both ears open and both — and you watch it with both eyes open, there's a problem across the political spectrum.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me put this question to you. Let me put this question to, Sandy, if you don't mind.

    It's true that conservative students are an ideological minority on most university campuses.

  • Sanford Ungar:

    That's probably true, yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Is it incumbent upon university systems to then make sure the rights of that minority, including free speech, are protected?

  • Sanford Ungar:

    Of course. Oh, of course we should protect the free speech rights of all students on campuses.

    I think we deal too much, though, in stereotypes and cliches. First of all, I don't think all of us, students, faculty, staff, citizens should be compelled to reveal whether we're on one side or the other. It's much more complicated than that.

    And I think students — when you have discussions with students — I teach now at two universities. And when you have conversations with students, you discover that their views are not so easily pigeonholed, when you spend meaningful time with them.

    Everyone comes to college with a different understanding of just what free speech means, and with very individual impressions. And I think it's ridiculous to try to categorize, well, what percentage? How do we find that out? Do we take a survey?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about that idea of free speech. A lot of this is definition, right?

    The argument being that when free speech goes into hate speech or discriminatory speech, that that should not be given a platform.

    For example, a lot of the ideas that may be held by some conservative speakers who've been shouted down before are bigoted towards gay Americans or trans Americans or Americans of other faiths.

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    That's why there's a First Amendment. Who decides what's hate speech and what's not?

    I mean, and when you have 96 percent of one persuasion making that decision, then it's going to come down lopsided all the time.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You go back — just again, but as someone who's in charge of seeing who gets a platform and who doesn't, where do you draw the line?

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    We invite a lot of liberal speakers who won't come, because they know that Liberty is a conservative school. You don't have to be a conservative to attend Liberty, just like you don't have to be a liberal to attend Harvard.

  • Sanford Ungar:

    What do you think that the — well, of course not. I mean, I teach at Harvard, and students are not categorizable like that.

    Certainly, in my seminars on free speech at Harvard, I would say there's no way to predict the political — these are students.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    Students, a lot of them haven't developed their political ideology yet.

  • Sanford Ungar:

    Well, and that's a good thing. That's a good thing.

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    Because I know, when I was in college, I was worried about what job I was going to get, who I was going to marry, everything except politics.

    The older guys with the ties were the ones that made the decisions anyway. So…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, now you're one of the older guys with the ties.

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    That's right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask this of both of you then.

    As the person who makes some of these decisions, how do you enforce something like this? Where's the line between free speech and something that could be potentially dangerous to some of your student body?

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    Well, the executive order curbs research dollars to universities who don't permit free speech.

    And I don't know how you define that and how you police it. But I think the bigger problem is the federal student loan issue. And that's what was discussed today.

    I think the president is going to go a step further very soon and is going to try to single out the bad actors who have gone out of business, who have not given their students the education they promised.

    You see, before 2010, it was guaranteed student loans. The private lenders were making the loans. The government was guaranteeing it. So the private lenders were making the profit. Then the government took over. Since they were guaranteeing it anyway, I think they should have been — they should have been taken it over.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You think by the president tying this to financial means in some way, it has a sense of urgency to it?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    The government should earn the interest and income.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We don't have much more than a minute left. I want to make sure we can get into this.

    You can go ahead.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Sanford Ungar:

    One of the president's claims is that universities that don't respect free speech in his terms — we don't know what terms those are — who will decide? Who will make the list, whether it will be him staying up late at night or some other process than that?

    That people will be denied research funds. And my only fear about this — I think, in general, the executive order won't have much effect. But my worry is that, ultimately, important cancer research could be defunded because somebody offends Milo Yiannopoulos, who the president supports.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We have got 30 seconds left. Do you share that concern? Do you share that concern?

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    Colleges don't operate like businesses.

    We operate like a business. Our students leave with $6,000 less debt than the national average.

  • Sanford Ungar:

    But that's not…

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    And so there's — we have a lower — our default rate is lower than the national average. The elite schools don't want to operate like businesses.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Setting aside the finances for a moment, though, we're here to talk about free speech.

    Are you concerned that overpolicing that language could lead to other things happening at universities?

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    I think just allowing free speech. You don't police…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Sanford Ungar:

    Well, sure, but the president is threatening research funding. He has said it. He has used that term.

    I would like more definition of, what are the grounds for cutting off important research, patriotic research, research to keep Americans safe, healthy, secure for the future? Because a speaker was shouted down at a campus?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    A speaker was disinvited because…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Sanford Ungar:

    And that would be a reason to cut off the research?

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And this debate is surely going to continue.

    Gentlemen, we're going to have to leave it there. But I thank you both very much for being here.

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.:

    Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jerry Falwell Jr., Sanford Ungar, thank you.

  • Sanford Ungar:

    Thank you.

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