Tensions were rising at Binghamton University last November as a crowd of protesters surrounded a table where students displayed images of guns and proclaimed their right to carry them. As the shouting escalated, the university police escorted the conservative students away but didn’t arrest any protesters — a decision that would prompt complaints of bias and a lawsuit from campus Republicans.
It’s the kind of controversy that usually plays out within the confines of a campus, and sometimes in the courts, but this one has also attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Education. Since President Trump issued an executive order on free speech last year, Binghamton is at least the third university to be put on notice that it is under federal investigation. Free-speech experts predicted more will follow.
Trump’s executive order threatens to withhold federal money from colleges that fail to protect free speech. The order directs federal agencies to ensure that institutions receiving U.S. research or education grants “promote free inquiry.” Critics viewed the directive as unnecessary government intervention and pointed out that the First Amendment already requires public institutions to do that.
But the order also seeks to hold colleges accountable for their own institutional policies on free speech. Private colleges that aren’t bound by the First Amendment often have policies that mirror First Amendment protections, and many public colleges have institutional protections that extend beyond what’s required by federal law.
Last month, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced a final rule outlining how her department planned to carry out Trump’s order. The rule won’t take effect until November 23, but the department has already begun moving ahead with investigations.
In the three known cases the Education Department has pursued since Trump issued his order — the others involve UCLA and Fordham University — it has sided with conservative parties.
Jonathan Friedman, campus free speech project director for PEN America, a human-rights association of writers and editors, called the investigations and the threat of a funding cut a “disproportionate reaction” to controversies that could be better handled by campus administrators. “This is a blatant attempt to politicize these issues and score political points,” Friedman wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “It is part of this administration’s ongoing effort to undermine and attack colleges and universities. If the DoE actually wants to improve the climate for free speech and academic freedom, it should be working to improve public education and to support administrators facing these challenges, not cherry-picking incidents to use to retaliate against them.”