Betsy DeVos says First Amendment rights are being threatened on college campuses

DeVos said university professors are telling people what to do and what to think.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. CREDIT: AP/Susan Walsh

After going through a confirmation battle and saying nary a word about higher education, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos finally touched on the issue during a Thursday speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. But instead of talking about student debt, she only used the opportunity to denounce political correctness run amok.

DeVos said the “real threat” on college campuses is the silencing of First Amendment rights.

“Now let me ask you: How many of you are college students? The fight against the education establishment extends to you too,” she said. “The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. 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.”

DeVos’ statements on higher education, both during her confirmation process and as secretary, haven’t delved very far into major policy issues. She did make broad remarks about the flexibility community colleges allow students at the 2017 Community College National Legislative Summit on February 16. But rather than providing much in the way of specifics, she said she will work with community colleges as “Trump’s vision continues taking shape.”

The idea that college campuses are places for liberal professors to force their views on students and punish them when they don’t comply has been around for decades. But in an environment where the Republican Party is focused on criticizing safe spaces on college campuses and students have protested against conservative speakers coming to their campuses, DeVos’ speech is particularly potent.

Although the Republican Party platform has pushed against the idea of “political indoctrination” on college campuses in the past, its 2016 platform criticized what they called “zones of intellectual intolerance or ‘safe zones.” Republicans, as well as some liberal journalists, have called these efforts an affront to free speech. Safe spaces are meant to provide places where marginalized groups who want to get away from the dominant campus culture for a moment, or where someone who has been traumatized by something can go to heal on their own time.

“Colleges, universities, and trade schools must not infringe on their freedom of speech and association in the name of political correctness,” the platform reads.

Until recently, when he was banned from CPAC due to comments he made about adult men sleeping with underage boys, the right held up former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos up as an example of someone whose speech was persecuted by the campus left. Yiannopoulos has mocked and identified a transgender student at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; made an antisemitic comment about a BuzzFeed reporter; and was responsible for a racist and sexist harassment campaign against Saturday Night Live’s Leslie Jones.