NEWS RELEASE: Student Press Law Center Statement on Government Involvement in Promoting “Free Inquiry”

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 22, 2019

Contact: Diana Mitsu Klos, SPLC director of engagement, (202) 728-7267 dmk@splc.org

We are concerned by the attempt by government to insert itself into “free inquiry” and the debates around free speech on campus at both the federal and state level.

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been working to promote, support and defend the First Amendment rights of student journalists at the high school and college level, as well as those of their advisers. Yesterday, President Trump issued an Executive Order on Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities which, while affirming existing law, also gives us pause regarding its implementation.

We welcome the President’s statement that, “Free inquiry is an essential feature of our Nation’s democracy, and it promotes learning, scientific discovery, and economic prosperity.” At its core, today’s Executive Order affirms the Administration’s commitment to “encourage institutions to foster environments that promote open, intellectually engaging and diverse debate…”  It goes on, however, to state that “the heads of covered agencies shall…take appropriate steps, in a manner consistent with applicable law, including the First Amendment, to ensure institutions that receive Federal research or education grants promote free inquiry, including through compliance with all applicable Federal laws, regulations, and policies.”  This raises significant concerns regarding how this review will be implemented and which standards will apply. Statements by 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. How that will happen, under what criteria, by whom and when, are all unclear.

On one hand, the Order is directing schools to do what they are already obligated by law to do. On the other hand, we are concerned that the Order does not sufficiently define “free inquiry” nor does it provide any clear process for evaluating fair implementation.  Such lack of definition could lead to administrative standards being developed or arbitrarily implemented which chill free speech or inquiry, or which might be used to advance specific political agendas. On its face, a government promise to encourage schools to protect and affirm freedom of speech is worthwhile, but it becomes problematic if it is, in reality, meant to advance specific political agendas.  

At the same time that this Executive Order was issued, free inquiry is under threat at the state level as well.  The Student Press Law Center is deeply concerned about HB 839  which is currently pending in Florida.  The bill “requir[es] the Board of Governors to require state universities to conduct an annual assessment related to intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity at each state university.”  The survey is meant to “consider the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented and members of the university community feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.”  The bill does not provide protections for privacy or anonymity, nor does it offer any specific information about how such data can — or cannot — be used. Such state-sponsored monitoring of viewpoints and belief is a dangerous precedent which, while purporting to advance free expression, in fact, may result in litmus tests and chilled inquiry.

If federal or state governments truly want to take effective action to protect the First Amendment, they should take steps to address the issues that free speech and student advocates have been fighting for decades. This includes defunding of student news organizations, retaliation against and intimidation of employees for speech damaging to their institutions’ public relations interests, schools’ disciplinary overreach into student speech off-campus or on social media, and the rampant misuse of FERPA as a tool for suppressing discussion of institutional misconduct.

The Student Press Law Center is a staunchly nonpartisan, independent 501c(3) based in Washington, D.C.  Since 1974, we have worked at the intersection of law, journalism and education to ensure that student journalists can publish freely, without censorship or prior review, in an open marketplace of ideas which promotes a true culture of transparency, accountability and critical thinking.