An ideological thumb on the scale

Yesterday Trump signed an executive order to do with free inquiry at universities.

At a signing ceremony at the White House, Mr. Trump said he wanted to give notice to “professors and power structures” seeking to prevent conservatives “from challenging rigid, far-left ideology.”

In a background briefing call with reporters on Thursday morning, a senior administration official said grant-making agencies would work with the Office of Management and Budget to make sure that institutions receiving funding promote free speech rights within applicable law. The issue has become a cause célèbre among conservatives, who argue that their voices are being silenced on liberal campuses.

While their voices are being very loudened in government and on Fox News.

Mr. Trump was not much more specific in his own remarks. He said agencies would use their control over grants “to ensure that public universities protect, cherish, protect the First Amendment, First Amendment rights of their students or risk losing billions and billions of dollars of federal taxpayer dollars.”

It’s so cruel of them to quote him verbatim. Let’s look at that again, with the repetitions highlighted.

He said agencies would use their control over grants “to ensure that public universities protect, cherish, protect the First Amendment, First Amendment rights of their students or risk losing billions and billions of dollars of federal taxpayer dollars.”

Ouch. The aphasia is progressing rapidly rapidly.

PEN America has some concerns.

The directive that federal agency heads, in coordination with the federal Office of Management and Budget, take “appropriate steps” to ensure that institutions receiving such funds “promote free inquiry” and comply with federal law and policy is vague and overbroad. Neither “appropriate steps” nor “free inquiry” are defined, opening the door to interpretations that could impinge upon academic freedom or insert the government into decisions that are properly made by faculty and university leadership. “Free inquiry” must not mean that discredited theories or pseudoscience need to be given a forum on campus.

All U.S. academic institutions are required to uphold the law, and oversight and enforcement mechanisms already exist to ensure such compliance. It is not clear that any additional steps would be appropriate for the federal government to guarantee that an individual university promote the White House’s concept of “free inquiry.” The idea that scientific research or educational grants could be tied to prevailing political winds is anathema to the academic enterprise.

In other words, “free inquiry” means different things to researchers as opposed to political people. That’s the thing about electoral (aka democratic) politics: the people in charge are inevitably political, because they have to get elected before they can be in charge. That makes them accountable, good, but it also means they have to keep one eye on public sentiment at all times, not always so good. Researchers often have to be somewhat political too, because of the struggle to get funding, but as a class their motivations and scruples tend in another direction. To put it crudely, the two sets have a different orientation toward truth.

Truth and free speech aren’t always fighting on the same side. Free speech and inquiry can mean free for cranks, frauds, liars, trolls, bots, hacks, marketers. There’s a cherished liberal piety that says free inquiry always gets to the truth, sometimes with the qualifier “eventually” or “ultimately” – which is meaningless, because there is no “eventually” or “ultimately,” there’s only this moment then this one then this one. The cherished liberal piety is wrong.

And back to the specific, PEN points out that Trump is no friend of free speech and inquiry in any case.

The First Amendment protects all speech regardless of political party or ideological leanings. Yet this Administration has a pronounced pattern of using its muscle to protect certain viewpoints, while either encouraging or even exacting reprisals against speech it finds objectionable or critical. Whether it is in response to protesters at a campaign rally, NFL or college football players taking a knee on the field, or journalists asking tough questions, the Administration has resorted to taunts and intimidation in order to suppress the speech of those with whom it disagrees. The President has even crossed the line into threats and acts of retaliation against journalists whose news coverage he disapproves of, violating the First Amendment (see PEN America v Trump). The President’s decision to announce this Executive Order at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee underscores the concern that it represents an effort to put an ideological thumb on the scale of federal free speech protections.

Remember when they took Jim Acosta’s press pass away? Remember how Trump simply stopped doing press conferences? And Sarah Sanders has mostly stopped doing press briefings? Remember Trump’s calling the news media “the enemy of the people” repeatedly? Yeah, Trump as guardian of free inquiry is laughable.

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