Government

Jeff Sessions Adds to Trumpian Chorus on Campus Speech Limits

September 25, 2017

Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images
In a speech Tuesday at Georgetown U., Attorney General Jeff Sessions is scheduled to cast college as "a shelter for fragile egos." The culture-warrior posture is a familiar one for members of the Trump administration.

Jeff Sessions, the U.S. attorney general, will visit Georgetown University on Tuesday morning, and early reports indicate he will bear a familiar message about higher education: that of political correctness run amok.

"Whereas the American university was once the center of academic freedom — a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas — it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos," Mr. Sessions is expected to say, according to the news outlet Axios.

Statements like that ought to ring a lot of bells for academics who have been paying attention to the Trump administration’s public statements on higher ed.

In then-candidate Donald J. Trump’s only major campaign speech on higher ed, he took the opportunity last October to take aim at political correctness. "In the past few decades, political correctness — oh, what a terrible term — has transformed our institutions of higher education from ones that fostered spirited debate to a place of extreme censorship, where students are silenced for the smallest of things," he said. "You say a word somewhat differently, and all of a sudden you’re criticized — sometimes viciously. We will end the political correctness and foster free and respectful dialogue."

No such intervention has occurred, and during his tenure President Trump has broached the issue only once. The morning after violent protests shut down a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley in February, President Trump threatened to cut off the university’s federal funding. "If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view - NO FEDERAL FUNDS?" he wrote on Twitter.

Members of the administration have echoed the president. "The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference, also in February. "They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree."

Ms. DeVos underlined similar points in July, telling a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council that state legislators should pressure campuses to protect free expression, referring to their "power of the purse." She continued: "We all have the opportunity to use our bully pulpit and bring light to places of darkness where speech is not being allowed to be free and open and heard."

The secretary even stressed the issue during her announcement this month that the Education Department would rescind Obama-era federal guidance instructing colleges on campus sexual assault. "Too many cases involve students and faculty who have faced investigation and punishment simply for speaking their minds or teaching their classes," she said, of campus Title IX investigations.

This sentiment — that the First Amendment is being strangled at colleges — has gained currency in the public, especially in conservative circles. Occasionally, a new poll will purport to offer as evidence college students’ low opinions of the First Amendment.

A recent poll by a professor at the University of California Los Angeles found that a sizable minority of college students favored the use of violence to shut down controversial speech. But in the ensuing days after its publication, observers pointed out suspect polling methods that may have juked the findings. The poll was funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, a conservative nonprofit that seeks to promote the study of the free market on campuses.

A 2016 Gallup study found that college students are more likely than the general population to agree that "colleges should expose students to all types of speech and viewpoints." But that survey also found that 54 percent of students said they sensed that some students on their campus did not say "what they believe because others might find it offensive."

It’s worth remembering amid such condemnations that the free-speech climate on campuses is anything but uniform. Of America’s roughly 20 million college students, seven million attend community colleges, where controversial speakers and free-speech controversies are seldom observed. And about eight million college students — close to half the total population — are over the age of 25, a statistic that bucks the classic "sheltered snowflake" characterization.

Sam Hoisington contributed reporting to this article.

Andy Thomason oversees breaking-news coverage. Send him a tip at andy.thomason@chronicle.com. And follow him on Twitter @arthomason.