Earlier this year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order requiring colleges and universities that receive federal funds to do what they’re already required by law to do: extend free-speech protections to men and women on campus.
The executive order was a transparent exercise in politics. Its intent was to validate the collective antipathy that many Trump boosters feel toward institutions of higher learning. Its major impact, though, has been to shed light on how serious the purported censorship crisis on campus really is—or, rather, is not.
I have served for more than two decades as a university president, the past 17 years leading Columbia University. I am also a lifelong First Amendment scholar and have written books and essays to try to understand and explain why our laws and norms have evolved as they have. In both these capacities, I can attest that attitudes about the First Amendment are evolving—but not in the way President Trump thinks.
The president’s claim that the campus free-speech order was needed to defend “American values that have been under siege” ignored two essential facts. First, universities are, today, more hospitable venues for open debate than the nation as a whole. Second, not only have fierce arguments over where to draw the line on acceptable speech been a familiar occurrence in the United States for the past century, but such dialogue has also been indispensable to building a society that embraces the First Amendment. From flag burning to Holocaust denial, Americans of all ages have been grappling with basic questions about offensive speech for decades and will continue to do so for as long as the country strives for this ideal of openness and freedom of expression. Exchanges over the boundaries of campus speech should therefore be welcomed rather than reviled when they take place.