President Trump recently announced a plan for an executive order that would deny federal research funds to universities that fail to support free speech.
Speaking on the topic, the president cited the case of conservative activist Hayden Williams, who was punched in the face at the University of California, Berkeley while recruiting students for the Leadership Institute. A better example of free-speech infringement at a public university would be UCLA’s campaign against alumnus and teacher Keith Fink.
As a UCLA student, Fink won three national debating championships. He went on to earn a law degree, and in 2008, returned to the campus as a lecturer in the Department of Communication Studies. For a decade, students in many disciplines, including medicine and law, packed out his course, “Sex, Politics and Race: Free Speech on Campus.”
University officials, however, took a dim view of the course. As Fink told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The fact that I use current events at UCLA as teaching examples to illustrate free-speech principles likely bothers the administration.”
UCLA bosses moved to limit enrollment to Fink’s popular classes, and even blocked admission by students who fit in under the cap. Fink’s department rigged a phony assessment and intimidated students who demonstrated in favor of the professor, chanting “Rethink, keep Fink.” Many students hailed Fink as one of the best professors on campus, but their voices fell on deaf ears.
Not a single UCLA professor or administrator stuck up for Fink. University of California president Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor and Department of Homeland Security boss, likewise failed to offer support.
After showing Fink the door, campus officials manufactured accusations against Fink’s supporters and even his college debate coach. Fink now runs a nonprofit to help students push back against free-speech violations, which extend far beyond his own case. When Manhattan Institute scholar Heather MacDonald came to speak at UCLA in 2017, she was harassed by rowdy students and outside groups, but administrators did nothing.
Trump’s threat to cut federal research dollars should be a wake-up call, since universities have no constitutional right to federal funds for any purpose. This fact was well-known within the Obama administration. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education threatened to “terminate federal funding” of Tufts University for Title IX violations. Infringements of free speech are far more serious because they involve a fundamental right, and the nation’s free-speech zone includes the entire country.
UCLA faculty and students might wonder what would happen if President Trump succeeded in blocking research funds. UC campuses could partially compensate for the lost funding by cutting expensive diversity bureaucrats such as Jerry Kang, UCLA’s vice chancellor for “equity, diversity and inclusion.”
UCLA pays Kang a whopping $440,000 a year, more than the official salary of the president of the United States. California’s Proposition 209 already bars racial and ethnic preferences in state education, so the diversity bureaucracy amounts to wasteful spending. Some researcher might put that money to some legitimate use. Meanwhile, the president is getting some push-back.
Trump’s executive order is “unnecessary,” some journalists have argued, because public universities are already subject “to the full reach of the First Amendment.” The edict, Feldman contends, “would be telling universities what speech can or cannot be allowed on campus.”
In reality, UC bosses are already telling students and faculty alike that some kinds of speech are not allowed on campus, particularly speech that supports First Amendment free-speech rights. In 2011, when UC Davis students used those rights to peacefully protest tuition hikes, the administration deployed campus cops to pepper-spray them.
If embattled students were to support President Trump’s plan to block federal funding for intolerant universities, it would be hard to blame them.
Lloyd Billingsley is a policy fellow at the nonprofit Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.