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Muddy waters of free speech

What Trump’s executive order should make us consider

  • 3 min to read
Free Speech

The University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s Campus Climate Committee held a panel about free speech.

An executive order that demands that colleges and universities “promote free and open debate” on campus or risk losing federal research funding was implemented by President Trump on March 21. 

Although free speech is paramount, Executive Order 13864 fails to present a clear foundation for institutions to enforce it. A lack of guidance from the White House and various interpretations of the First Amendment are reminders that free speech is still not fully understood and more dialogue must be held to better define the concept. 

Giving the people a voice 

About 73 percent of voters support the executive order, according to The Washington Post,  citing a poll conducted by McLaughlin & Associates. Participants agreed with the edict regardless of political party, education level or sex. 

These results may seem surprising, especially in today’s political climate. However, one must not forget that free speech is not and should never be a partisan issue.

The First Amendment grants Americans the right to free speech and is an essential aspect of democracy. It is our job as American citizens to uphold this concept for ourselves and those around us. 

Entering muddy waters

Although many agree with this measure, Amrita Mallik, the director of the Campus Climate Committee at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, believes there needs to be fundamental guidance as to how institutions can better enforce it. 

“There is a lack of clarity from the executive order about what protecting free speech looks like,” Mallik said. “Is there something different than what we’ve been doing that needs to be expected? That still needs to be clarified.”

On March 22, the Student Press Law Center issued a statement regarding the executive order saying that while they accept that “free inquiry is an essential feature of our Nation’s democracy,” there is concern over how free speech will be evaluated in order to continue receiving federal research or education grants. 

“Administration officials have noted that grant-making officials will work with the Office of Management and Budget to ensure that free speech laws are being implemented,” SPLC officials went on to say. “How that will happen, under what criteria, by whom and when, are all unclear.”

Going beyond the name 

For an executive order that aims to promote “free inquiry, transparency, and accountability,” the absence of guidelines makes it fall short of its goal. 

Institutions must be made aware of how they will be evaluated in their efforts to promote and protect free speech in order to successfully comply with the order and continue receiving federal funding for research. 

One could argue that a lack of governmental guidance allows colleges and universities to form their own method of fulfilling the order; however, not knowing how the government expects institutions to enforce it is frustrating. 

As it stands, the edict only acknowledges that free speech is indispensable.

“It doesn’t really change the concept of free speech, but it also doesn’t help define it or clarify it,” Mallik said. “I kinda think it’s a bit of a wash. The thing to remember is we’re already well aware of our obligations under the First Amendment. We’re already doing everything we can to ensure that we are honoring the Constitution and that we are doing what we need to do to balance those interests.”

What it means to speak freely

Trump’s executive order and its reactions make it clear that there is a lack of dialogue regarding what “free speech” means and how to protect it. 

Free speech entails people having the opportunity to express their thoughts and feeling respected while doing so. It is also important that people remain open-minded and not let emotions and violent actions guide their reaction toward different views. 

People have the freedom to express their thoughts, but this can lead to a cacophony of opposing discourses. Someone’s “they’re being too sensitive” can be another person’s “they are justified in what they think.” 

An example of what should be discussed regarding free speech is hate speech. 

“Hate speech is one of the grayest gray areas in this area of work,” Mallik said. “Hate speech, technically, is protected speech. The Supreme Court has held that. However, the balancing act comes in as to when hate speech crosses the line, when it makes people feel individually threatened, when it violates existing equal employment opportunity laws or other civil rights laws. This is a constant balance that we all have to engage in.”

The first step to achieving synergy is by having conversations and effectively communicating. Simply understanding each other may not offer a solid definition of what free speech is, but it is a start in addressing what it means in a political, social and personal context.