Pollak: Trump’s Executive Order on Campus Free Speech Should Target Overhead Costs

Mario-Savio-Berkeley-Free-Speech-Movement (Associated Press)
Associated Press

President Donald Trump told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday that he would soon issue an executive order protecting free speech on campus, withholding federal grants to schools that fail to comply.

It is not clear what the executive order would entail, though Robby Soave of the libertarian website Reason.com reported that “the plan is to penalize universities that do not protect free speech by taking away their federal grants.”

Soave noted two principled objections to the executive order. First, it may not work, because the problem is “cultural”:

[T]here are some far-left activist students who view speech with which they disagree as a form of violence, and they insist on shutting down controversial speakers on self-defense grounds. It is this tiny illiberal minority making life difficult: When they threaten violence against conservative speakers, they force university administrations to spend more money on security—costs that are sometimes passed along to other students.

Second, he notes, using an executive order might worsen the problem of executive overreach. That is not directly related to free speech, though President Barack Obama — who recognized no real limits to executive power — tried to dictate leftist campus sexual assault policies. Expanding executive power further would create a bad precedent.

Beyond the points Soave raises, it would also be politically difficult to cancel grants outright. Critics would argue that Trump was throwing away valuable research, or lob counter-charges of interfering in academic freedom.

But there are responses to these objections.

First, the Trump administration has already begun to address the “cultural” problem. Last year, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the administration would continue to intervene in campus free speech cases on the side of students who were victims of discriminatory policies. That approach succeeded in forcing UC Berkeley to reach a settlement with conservative students and to revise its policies. Others may follow.

Second, there are tools Trump has to address the “cultural” problem that are already within his executive authority. One is to restrict the percentage of federal research grants that universities can devote to “overhead” costs. These costs supposedly fund the administrative and operations expenses that make research possible, but in practice they also operate as slush funds that support a wide array of radical left-wing causes that have become institutionalized.

When the Trump administration proposed cutting “overhead” costs in National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants from 30% to 10% in 2017, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. But critics acknowledged that Trump could make the change unilaterally, without congressional legislation.

Trump could change the culture on campus by lowering overhead limits, while preserving the core research function of the grants themselves — and could tell the many public universities that enforce “speech codes” that their overhead limits would become even more stringent unless they respected both free speech and academic freedom.

To some extent, there will always be a left-wing bias on campus: it is in the nature of youth to challenge hierarchies, even necessary ones. But students themselves would benefit from puncturing the current climate of conformity.

Fewer would leave college believing in socialist fairy tales or interpreting fair criticism as the result of hidden prejudice — patterns that seem disturbingly common among the somewhat recent graduates elected to Congress last year.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.


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