Debunking Charlie Kirk on Trump’s Campus Speech Executive Order

At the Conservative Political Action Committee (commonly known as CPAC) meeting over the first weekend in March 2019, President Trump said he would sign an executive order that would take away federal funding for any college or university that didn’t uphold the First Amendment.

During his announcement Trump brought to the stage a volunteer from Turning Point USA who was physically assaulted while tabling for the organization on the campus of UC Berkeley in February. A person was recently arrested for that crime.

Charlie Kirk, president and founder of Turning Point USA, wrote an op-ed for Fox News on Monday March 4 about that executive order.

I want to fact-check and analyze that op-ed.

The Order itself

There is of course no executive order yet.

This is as much as we know: according to Inside HigherEd, Trump said: “If they want our dollars and we give them by the billions, they’ve got to allow people to speak.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out Trump singled out a pool of money: “Today I’m proud to announce that I will be very soon signing an executive order requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research grants.”

IHE also notes “this is not the first time President Trump has used an incident at Berkeley to suggest that federal research dollars should be cut off over alleged denial of free speech rights. In 2017, violent protesters (believed by university officials to be from off campus) set fires and damaged property at the university just before a scheduled appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos.” Trump then tweeted “no federal funds?” in the context of Berkeley.

The Chronicle also notes that Trump has expressed doubts about the lack of free speech on campus, saying at a Turning Point USA event last year that the ‘vast majority’ of people on campuses ‘want free speech’ and that the campus free-speech crisis is ‘highly overblown.’

Finally on the precipitating incident, the Chronicle quoted Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. Hartle said the threatened order “is a solution in search of a problem” and that Trump left some open some questions about the incident at Berkeley — in which neither the assailant nor the victim was a Berkeley student: “It’s not clear what the president believes Berkeley should have done differently.”

Kirk’s Partisan Claims

The responses from free speech and campus groups to the proposed order were cautious but stressed non-partisan principles in holding up the First Amendment. Those statements directly oppose openly partisan statements by Kirk in his op-ed.

First, there is the implication by Kirk that Kirk and his organization are part of Trump’s “air force.” Kirk writes that while Turning Point has been gaining ground on campuses, “we have still been operating without any form of air cover.”

To be clear, Kirk isn’t making this “cover” reference to the First Amendment, federal policies, or any already-on-the-books statement. He is suggesting Trump’s unwritten executive order would be analogous to how ground troops are supported by bombing campaigns and helicopter gunships. Kirk sees Trump as a commanding general who can “clear the way” for Kirk’s troops. That is partisanship on its face.

Second, Kirk claimed that “most Americans actually know that college campuses are extremely one-sided and are feeding a biased and uninterrupted stream of information to students.”

This is not accurate.

A Pew survey notes, as the Chronicle reported, “about 61 percent of Americans think higher education is moving in the wrong direction. About three-fourths of Republicans and those who lean Republican believe so. The figure was lower, but still a slim majority at 52 percent, for Democrats and those who lean Democratic.”

“Moving in the wrong direction” is hardly the same as Kirk’s “extremely one-sided” and feeds “a biased” knowledge to students.

Pew also found that “Republicans and Democrats are worlds apart when it comes to some of the reasons why they think higher education is going in the wrong direction. Among Republicans with this view, three-quarters or more cite professors bringing their political and social views into the classroom (79%) and too much concern about protecting students from views they might find offensive (75%) as major reasons. Relatively small shares of Democrats say the same (17% and 31%, respectively).”

Even if you add the 79% of GOPers and 17% of Democrats who say professors bring their political and social views in the classrooms and so might think that is Kirk’s “most Americans,” that data point is not evidence for Kirk’s claim. Some classes call for the professor’s “political and social opinion” as those classes are about political and social opinions.

As for bias, Kirk is not railing against the limitation of speech, but what he sees as people not speaking the opinions he wants. He calls this lack “bias.”

But more broadly, I have written previously about Kirk’s claims about higher education and what he calls “indoctrination.” See here, here, and here. I also have checked Kirk’s claims about specific campus speech incidents, including the Milo event at Berkeley. See here.

“He should also be charged with a hate crime.”

Does the California “hate crime” law apply here? No, not with the evidence we have at the moment.

According to the state attorney general, “a hate crime is a crime against a person, group, or property motivated by the victim’s real or perceived protected social group.”

The law protects against many classes but limited to: “crimes motivated by the victim’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation or physical or mental disability.”

There is no evidence in the video of the incident that the Turning Point volunteer was assaulted for anything other than his political views. CNN reported that the attacker called the victim “racist” but that is not an attack on his race.

Kirk also claimed that this “kind of thuggery from students, activists, professors, and administration officials is a product to which team left exclusively holds the patent.”

Certainly if we expand that off campus, that is a false statement by Kirk. Just in California it is clear: the Los Angeles Times reports that “hate crimes increased across California for the third straight year in 2017, an uptick experts have blamed on President Trump’s vitriolic rhetoric toward minorities and the resurgence of hate groups in the state.”

But Kirk is also suggesting that the assault of the Turning Point volunteer is also done by campus groups — professors and administrators in particular. That is a false statement.

Hard to prove people aren’t doing a thing, but if anyone has a report of a professor physically assaulting a conservative student or campus visitor based on their politics, let me know. And pulling down fliers and erasing chalk isn’t the kind of “thuggery” Kirk is referring to.

Kirk’s Definition of Free Speech

It also seems Kirk is categorizing the “thuggery” of the assault with the “thuggery” of what he sees as discrimination against conservatives on campus or suppression of their speech. Yet there are moments in Kirk’s op-ed where he implicitly but inaccurately defines the legal status of free speech.

Kirk suggests the executive order could “address the intolerance and repression on college campuses that is experienced by conservative students and organizations.”

Free speech in America is dedicated to the capability of speakers to speak and their content not be part of the assessment of whether they can speak. In short, they are not judged based on the content of the speech.

This doesn’t mean false opinions and racist groups should be given equal respect to fact-based, research-grounded opinions. But as college campuses as concerned, there can’t be discrimination on the content of the speech. So any executive order about speech on campus can’t and won’t be able to address problems such as “intolerance” and “repression” because they are not defined by Kirk and he doesn’t name specific any examples of such. They are also not discrimination. [If so, we need to look at voting, right?]

Kirk says his group has experienced “discrimination and intimidation on college campuses.” The two examples of these experiences by Turning Point aren’t experiences an executive order on the First Amendment can change: “we have had our students at information tables called racists and other vile terms, we have had our representatives threatened with violence.”

Someone calling someone else a racist is protected speech. And being threatened with violence is not a speech issue.

Kirk does say Turning Point has “had universities deny our charters…”

Kirk does not say but he is likely referring to the private, Jesuit-based Santa Clara University “student leaders” who rejected Turning Point’s “bid [in 2017] for official recognition,” according to the San Jose Mercury News.

Here it was the duly elected student government that denied Turning Point status on campus.

But this does not mean Turning Point could not speak on campus. As the newspaper reported, “bestowing Student Recognized Organization status gives a student group rights to use the university’s name and facilities, conduct on-campus recruitment and sponsor events, as well as to access campus services and programs.”

This example had nothing to do with the First Amendment. It was not abridged here.

Turning Point was also not given student organization status at the private Iowa campus of Drake University, according to the Des Moines Register. Same misapplication here by Kirk: it wasn’t banned from speaking, just access to student government facilities and funds.

Finally, Kirk conflates changing political ideologies — going from right to left, for example — with free speech. And it is that change that Kirk hopes somehow Trump’s order will lessen.

Kirk writes that “I cannot begin to tell you the number of parents I have talked to over the past several years who tell me that when their child entered college, they seemed to have solid American values. However, when they exited college, they hated everything from Christopher Columbus to the gas-powered engine.”

Teaching, Academic Freedom, and Free Speech

With this sentence, Kirk implicitly seems to want colleges to stop teaching what he sees as anti-American values. Or he says if only conservative or American values were taught, more would be conservative.

And this sentence comes directly before a sentence that reveals why Kirk loves the promised executive order so much: it doesn’t necessarily have any legal effect but is Trump bringing attention to “to what is going on within our university system.” This attention can change things. Or in Kirk’s words “level this playing field.”

What is the field to Kirk? And how might it be leveled? He implies what professors teach is part of the executive order. Kirk says that “the people who are hostile to free markets and First Principles have been using the ‘academic setting’ of the college campus where ideas are ‘freely exchanged’ to promote only one point of view and to attempt to silence and eradicate the other.”

He adds more broadly then that “colleges are the production center of globalist ideas, of socialist ideas, and of general propaganda on anything from climate change to identity politics.”

I and others see this as an attack on the foundation of higher education: academic freedom.

Kirk has a misguided view of academic freedom. It is enshrined in principles more than 100 years old, agreed upon by ideologies of all stripes.

In the classroom, according to that statement of principles from the American Association of University Professors, “teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”

Kirk cries a lack of “imbalance” in professors’ speaking and that professors use the cover of academic freedom to not promote his point of view. He sees “freely exchanged” as mandating one teach every side or every opinion of every issue. This is a bad view of that exchange and not good teaching, as I show here.

Kirk wants to impose speech he wants on those professors. He wants experts who have studied and researched and published and taught and so concluded their professed opinions to be forced to speak his opinions. He believes that these people can’t make up their mind correctly, or that they, too, were miseducated. But he ignores how they simply came to another conclusion than his preferred one. He implies conspiracy whereas the truth is critical thinking.

If Kirk’s imposition isn’t an affront to and denial of the First Amendment, I don’t know what is.

One person speaking — even a person with power like a professor — doesn’t “silence and eradicate” another person speaking. This is why “shouting down” speakers is against the First Amendment.

In the end, Kirk wants to impose not only his rules on others, but his speech. That is the heart of what Trump is doing as well through his proposed order.