While the United States has robust laws protecting freed speech, conservatives have expressed concerns that the liberals of the academy are silencing free speech on campus. They can point to examples in which conservative speakers have been met with hostility and efforts to silence them. They can also point to the fact that most professors self-identify as liberals and note that there are few conservative intellectuals in the ivory towers. From this is it is natural to infer that conservatives are being treated unfairly in the academy and that something must be done to protect them from this oppression and to increase diversity of thought.
In response to these concerns, Trump recently signed a vague executive order which would link federal dollars to how well colleges protect the right to free inquiry. While the order does not make it clear what mechanisms will be used for enforcement or what standards will be employed to judge these matters, the basic idea is clear: if officials perceive that a university is not protecting the right of free inquiry, then they will be punished financially.
To be fair to Trump, this sort of approach already has a well-established precedent in the form of Title IX. This law is aimed at preventing discrimination based on sex in any education program or activity that receives federal money. One could argue that Trump has simply created the long-awaited Title IX for conservatives that forbids discrimination based on political ideology. Or at least a certain ideology. After all, Trump made it clear that his goal was to give notice to academics who are trying to prevent conservatives “from challenging rigid, far-left ideology.” In any case, defenders of this order can point to Title IX and make an argument by analogy to support their view.
This approach does have merit—as was noted, the basic ideas are similar: using a financial threat to send a message about discrimination. As with any argument by analogy, there is the question of whether the two are adequately similar—this boils down to concerns about whether there are relevant differences that break the analogy.
One key difference is that Title IX deals with biology (sex) rather than ideology and one could argue that this is a relevant difference. Interestingly, one could point to claims about how identity works and make a case as to how sex and ideology are similar.
Another key difference is that women faced a long history of systematic discrimination in education and a significant power disparity existed between men and women necessitating that the state step in to level the playing field (and some would object that the laws have tilted the field in favor of women). In contrast, conservatives enjoy the benefits of the power disparity—they enjoy massive political and economic power across the country and to argue that they are being oppressed would be the height of absurdity.
It can be countered that while conservatives do control the White House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, most state legislatures, and much of the economy, they are still being oppressed by liberals on college campuses. One sarcastic reply would be to mock conservatives as snow flakes and social justice warriors for such complaints, but that would be unfair. After all, even if conservatives hold most of the political and economic power in the country, they could still be oppressed, mistreated or silenced in the context of the college campus and thus in need of protection by the federal government. To use an analogy, the fact that there are rich and powerful women like Clinton and Oprah does not entail that Title IX is not needed on campus. And, as the saying goes, an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere. So, I certainly oppose oppressing, silencing and mistreating conservatives simply because of their ideology—their right to free expression is obviously as valid as my own. But the question remains as to whether this executive order is needed and there is also the concern that it will be weaponized, which leads to the third key difference.
A third key difference is that there are already robust laws in place protecting free inquiry and expression on public campuses. When Richard Spencer wanted to speak at the University of Florida, he was able to use existing laws to do so. In contrast, Title IX was critical to providing women with protection against discrimination. As such, it can be argued that there is no real need for this executive order because existing laws already suffice. This needs to speculation about how the order might be weaponized to serve a political agenda. Ironically, an analogy to Title IX seems to work here as well.
While Title IX seems to be generally a good thing, conservatives and even some liberals have argued that it has been “weaponized.” To be specific, there has been legitimate concern regarding how Title IX was used to severely limit the rights of the accused in the case of sexual assault. There are also real concerns about how Title IX can be weaponized against innocent professors. While some might assert that these are unintended consequences of an otherwise good law, it is reasonable to point out that they are intended consequences of what is probably otherwise a good law. After all, the consequences clearly arise from the underlying values.
While the order’s defenders might liken it to a shield, it hands conservatives (and others) a lump of iron that can readily be hammered into a sword with which to make ideological attacks against “leftist” professors and universities. This is most likely an intended consequence, given Trumps words. While this new weapon might please conservatives, it is worth considering who else might forge a sword from this iron and whose blood it might shed. As such, while I agree that conservatives are entitled to the shield of free speech, this executive order is too easy to weaponize and should thus be opposed.