The Trump administration is engaging in a final push to eliminate threats it perceives to free speech on college campuses, which some Republicans have framed as liberal bastions inhospitable to conservative views.
Speakers at a U.S. Department of Education event Tuesday unleashed against these biases, alleging a widespread suppression of conservative voices. The presentation served to highlight the agency's new email hotline for college students and staff to report violations of free expression.
Some critics say the new measures are largely performative and an attempt to rile up his base over free speech issues before President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January.
Trump intervened on campus free speech matters early in his tenure, threatening in 2017 to revoke the University of California, Berkeley's, federal funding following violent demonstrations that halted a planned speech there by far-right political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos.
The Justice Department later supported a lawsuit brought by conservative groups against UC Berkeley's events policy. It also backed one against the University of Michigan, where a civil liberties watchdog sued, arguing the state flagship's rules on harassment and bullying were unconstitutional. Both lawsuits were settled.
Then last year, Trump signed an executive order tying federal research funds to public and private colleges' compliance with the First Amendment and their speech codes, respectively. A regulation this year mainly aimed at bolstering religious freedom among institutions also contained free speech protections.
Many civil liberties advocates applauded these efforts, though other policy experts say they are redundant with existing federal law.
Michael Olivas, a higher education free speech expert, said the new hotline — a department email address — is similarly unnecessary and likely infringes on federal law blocking the government from directly interfering with campus activities. Olivas was formerly the director of the Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston.
The Education Department did not provide a comment to Higher Ed Dive by publication time.
Olivas thinks the language and imagery evoked during Tuesday's presentation was intentionally inflammatory in an attempt to make a political statement before Biden's administration takes over.
At the event, Bob King, the assistant secretary for postsecondary education, spoke at length about "cancel culture," and progressives' attempts to publicly shame and silence viewpoints they find distasteful. At one point, he likened a K-12 school district's training on white privilege to "demagoguery" and "communist style reeducation camps."
Presenters did not discuss liberal views being tread on, such as when some students at Georgia Southern University last year burned the books of a Cuban-American author who came to campus to discuss diversity.
Some experts predict Biden's Education Department would immediately shut down the hotline. But Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at civil liberties advocacy group the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, isn't sure.
Conflicts over campus free expression predate Trump, and FIRE believes Biden recognizes this, Cohn said. However, Cohn added, it's incumbent on the current department to prove the hotline is not merely a partisan tool but instead one it will also use to root out transgressions against liberal voices.
FIRE reported that summer 2020 was busy for free speech-related complaints. It reviewed 287 complaints this June, compared to an average of 49 cases that month in the prior two years.
Cohn said he doesn't believe FIRE and similarly-minded organizations will need to be any more aggressive under a Biden administration than they are now, while Trump's department is pressing the matter.
"It's important for there to be voices emphasizing that censorship is truly a nonpartisan issue," he said.