University responds to free speech executive order

By Meghana Kaza, Staff writer

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on March 21 requiring colleges and universities to abide by free speech policies or lose their federal funding.

An announcement sent by Tim Killeen, president of University of Illinois System, said the UI System staked its position in December 2017 when it issued a set of guiding principles on pressing issues.

“The guiding principles reaffirm the U of I System’s bedrock commitment to free speech in a concise, forthright statement developed through a five-month process that included collaboration among more than 200 key stakeholders across our three universities,” Killeen said.

Killeen addressed the presence of free speech and inclusiveness on campus.

“The principles we adopted then and continue to follow now help ensure that each of our universities fosters an inclusive, welcoming campus climate that promotes an open exchange of divergent ideas and develops new generations of leaders,” Killeen said.

Tom Hardy, executive director of University Relations, said the guiding principles are a living document with the potential to be revised and are codified policies all UI campuses must follow.

Hardy said in an email freedom of speech is a fundamental principle for all public universities.

“An unyielding allegiance to freedom of speech — even controversial, contentious and unpopular speech — is indispensable to developing the analytical and communication skills of our students and empowering all members of our campus communities to be active and informed citizens,” Hardy said.

Killeen’s announcement mentioned the University will review the executive order to ensure it is consistent with the guiding principles.

According to Vikram Amar, professor and dean in Law, this executive order requires universities that receive federal funding to comply with the accompanying requirements.

“One way to understand the executive order is that it doesn’t make or change any law, but it signals a desire to make sure existing requirements concerning free speech are more energetically enforced,” Amar said in an email. “Members of public universities are already protected by the first amendment and state constitutional analogues, and most private universities have policies that also require adherence to First Amendment standards.”

At the White House, Trump was surrounded by 10 student activists who have said their conservative views are suppressed at their universities. One of these students was Joel Valdez, sophomore in LAS. 

“Everyone, no matter how radical or moderate your views, should be guaranteed the right to free speech; yet at the University of Illinois, conservative-leaning groups have consistently run into roadblocks that our liberal friends have not,” Valdez said in an email. “Not only is it our God-given right to free expression, but the institution of higher education is meant to be a marketplace of ideas where we become well-rounded citizens through civil discourse.”

Nilly Kumar, sophomore in Engineering and member of the Illini Young Democratic Socialists of America, said while there are issues that can be disagreed upon, ideas that are inherently racist, sexist or hateful must be opposed.

“The type of hateful rhetoric spread by Trump and the far-right has consequences,” Kumar said in an email. “We have seen an increase in hate crimes and terror attacks by white supremacists across the country which were inspired and emboldened by someone like Trump’s rhetoric.”

According to the Washington Post, Trump’s executive order has been met with some condemnation from people who say freedom of inquiry is a fundamental tenet of higher education, one the government should not be defining.

“I’ve only seen criticism of the executive order coming from those who are OK with administrative censorship against viewpoints they disagree with, primarily against conservatives,” Valdez said. “President Trump’s executive order to hold colleges and universities accountable for upholding free speech on college campuses is necessary.”

However, Kumar said Trump’s executive order will do nothing more than embolden the far-right on college campuses.

“It helps push a completely false narrative that conservative views are being censored on campus and that, in general, students with conservative views are discriminated against,” Kumar said. “It’s just another way for conservatives, who represent the status quo and have significant power in our politics, to feign persecution.”

In addition, Kumar expressed the irony that this order was signed by Trump.

“We also believe it is hypocritical for Trump to be worried about ‘freedom of speech’ when he himself has threatened to sue critics, has mused several times about retracting the broadcasting licences of media sources critical of his administration and is currently dead-silent about anti-BDS laws all across the country, an actual threat to free speech,” Kumar said.

Valdez said the First Amendment should remain a bipartisan issue people from all across the political spectrum should be willing to defend.

“We are committed to the open exchange of competing ideas, perspectives and values — a founding principle that built our nation — and to making the U of I’s own distinctive voice part of these productive dialogue,” Hardy said.

The Illini Republicans were not available to comment in time for production.

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