Impact of Trump’s executive order on campus free speech unclear: President Byerly says college anticipates no effect

Kathryn Kelly

President Donald Trump signed an executive order last Thursday titled Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency and Accountability at Colleges and Universities. As of now, its implication on colleges regarding its freedom of inquiry sections is unclear.

President Alison Byerly said she discussed the order “very briefly” with her cabinet, and they determined that the order doesn’t appear to affect the college.

The order states that the administration “encourages” that public institutions adhere to the constitutional principles of the first amendment, while private ones comply with their own “stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech.”

“Most people view it as a largely symbolic statement that doesn’t have any particular impact on [Lafayette]. We have very good handbook language pertaining to our speech policies,” Byerly said. “This wouldn’t change that or affect us in any way.”

One part of the executive order that seemed “concerning” to Byerly was the duty given to certain agencies to oversee the maintenance of free inquiry on campuses.

“[T]he heads of covered agencies shall, in coordination with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, 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,” the executive order reads.

“It’s concerning because that then could potentially open the door to individual officers of individual agencies using their own standards as a reason to deny requests,” Byerly said. “But I guess we would have to see whether that was likely to happen, but I don’t know of anything at Lafayette that would mean we would be likely to attract attention in this regard. I feel confident we adhere to our policies and could demonstrate that if needed.”

Lafayette was named by an institution called “the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education” (FIRE) in an article back in October 2018. The organization gave Lafayette a “red” rating for free speech rights, signaling that they believe the college restricts freedom of expression in part through its handbook section that bans language that would cause “emotional distress.”

“I’m aware of that [FIRE rating]… I’m aware of the handbook language on which it’s based. A lot of other colleges and universities find that they have statements in their handbook that that particular organization doesn’t support,” Byerly said.

“If we were ever to make changes to our language, it would be as a result of our own community’s discussion, not as the result of an external organization like FIRE,” she added. She believes she was made aware of the rating by the letter from FIRE itself.

While “one or two community members” have brought that rating up to her, most concerns surrounding the issue of free speech stem from people like alums or parents who see issues in the press ongoing at other schools and want to check in about Lafayette’s environment. Most of the time, Byerly said, she is able to ease their concerns.

Executive Director for FIRE Robert Shibley told the Washington Post that the order should be rather “uncontroversial” as it tells institutions to follow already stated policy. The Post also reported another expert being concerned that the order opens up research funding to political influence, and another was concerned that there was a risk of the order not being enforced in an “ideologically neutral” way.