• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

A Stumper

Free speech and the Trump administration.

 

March 25, 2019
 
 

On Monday, the Trump campaign sent out a memo to “television producers” with a list of people it strongly suggests should be banned from any future appearances. The enemies list “includes, but is not limited to:” Senator Richard Blumenthal, Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Rep. Eric Swalwell, DNC Chairman Tom Perez, and former CIA Director John Brennan.  The memo concludes with a “nice license you have there, should would be a shame if anything happened to it” style threat: “At this point, there must be...a serious evaluation of how such guests are considered and handled in the future.”

That’s one thing. 

But just last week -- I am cursed with historical memory -- the Trump administration issued an executive order to “protect free speech” on college campuses.  The idea was that students should be exposed to all sides of arguments, not just those a given faculty or administration might find congenial.

So now I am confused.

What would happen to a college that invited someone on the enemies list to speak?  Would it be upholding free speech, or declaring itself an enemy of the state? Or, to flip it around, what would happen to a college that disinvited someone on the enemies list from speaking?  Would it curry favor as a supporter of the regime, or would it run afoul of the free speech protections on which the ink isn’t yet dry?

I’ll admit, I was a bit surprised to see the enemies list circulated as a memo. Compared to, say, the Nixon administration, that seems so ... artless. But there it is.

Matters get more complicated when you take federalism into account.  The presidency may be “red,” but many states, including my own, are decidedly “blue.”  What if the blue folks started to get as aggressive as the red ones?

Hmm.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m really not a fan of enemies lists or extortionist threats.  Anyone with a sense of history knows where those lead. Honestly, I had thought we were over that sort of thing by now.  The fact that the statement “my opponents should be allowed to speak” has become a partisan identifier is harrowing. It should be a ground rule.  I thought it was.

So, I’ll ask my wise and worldly readers to help me figure this one out.  If a college allows someone on the enemies list to speak, which rule applies?  The one that says we have to, or the one that says we can’t? And how do we know?

 

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