Academe, Heal Thyself: Reflections on the Free Speech Executive Order Discussion at ACRL
By: guest contributor Sarah Hartman-Caverly
Free speech experts convened a timely panel at the Association of College & Research Libraries’ Conference to discuss campus speech issues in light of the executive order proposed during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and signed on March 21, 2019. In “Free Speech on Campus: Current Issues” moderated by Courtney Young (University Librarian, Colgate), discussants Deborah Caldwell-Stone (Interim director, ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom), Raymond Ku (Professor of Law and Director, Center for Cyberspace Law & Policy, Case Western), and Martin Garnar (Dean of the Library and Professor, Kraemer Family Library, U. of Colorado) reviewed the state of campus First Amendment interests as they intersect with constitutional executive powers, institutional sovereign immunity, and library policy.
The Executive Order on Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities (EO) comprises six sections. Section 1 outlines its purpose, to make higher education “more affordable, more transparent, and more accountable” and to “promote free and open debate on college and university campuses.” Were one to anonymize the order’s signatory, it strains credulity that a majority of librarians or scholars would find controversy with these stated purposes. Section 2 outlines applicable policy, including First Amendment compliance for public institutions and local speech policy compliance for private ones (subpart a), and providing information to facilitate informed decision-making on college enrollment and financing options for students and families (subparts b-e). Section 3 operationalizes these policies by naming covered federal agencies which issue non-tuition funding directly to institutions, such as for research and sponsored projects.
Panelists offered three positions on these parts of the EO. Caldwell-Stone indicated the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom will continue to monitor its implementation, as well as the development of First Amendment-related policies at the state level. Ku asserted that the EO might be a policy “nothing burger” and that the executive branch lacks constitutional standing for meaningful enforcement. Garnar encouraged libraries to develop local policies that uphold freedom of speech while intervening in cases of collection challenges, harassment, or incitement. The irony of confronting ideological speech restrictions on campus with ideological threats to restrict research funding was lost on no one; research and sponsored projects should be funded on the merits of the proposal and investigators alone. (Investigators who are concerned about what this EO means for their own research should hasten to their institutions’ corporate and foundations relations staff, who will happily work with them to secure support in the private sector.)
The panel did suffer from two omissions. First, while Caldwell-Stone gave brief mention to a suit filed against the (public) University of Minnesota by the Young America’s Foundation and Students for a Conservative Voice regarding a First Amendment claim of ideological bias, she characterized the university’s decision to relocate an event featuring conservative Millennial commentator Ben Shapiro on the basis of venue security. She indicated that the new venue was half the capacity as the planned venue, but did not also mention that it is located in an entirely different city (St. Paul versus Minneapolis) – a walking distance of four miles, driving distance of five miles, or half-hour’s ride by public transit. Caldwell-Stone also did not question why it might be that venue security should determine an event’s location in the first place. Perhaps it’s the recent memory of riots at Berkeley, violent assaults at Middlebury, or any number of other politically-motivated crimes (even involving faculty) that has conservatives so shook – certainly, the panel didn’t mean to diminish violence and property destruction or equate them with counterspeech. Add to this mix the separate but confounding variable of conservative viewpoint censorship, and there brews a toxic Kool-Aid that increasingly threatens to radicalize right-leaning moderates and their sympathizers.
The panel also omitted any meaningful discussion of sections 4 and 5 of the order, which seek to improve institutional transparency and accountability by intrusively tracking students’ educational progress, employment choices, and financial behaviors, even after they graduate. A creation of the previous presidential administration, the College Scorecard is an attempt to quantify, standardize, and predict the exchange value of a degree program. It is also a fundamental violation of learner privacy which adulterates the currents of inquiry at their source: the individual mind. Librarians long espoused that privacy and confidentiality are prerequisite to intellectual freedom; learner data tracking in the form of learning analytics, assessment, or for accreditation or reporting compliance infringe on autonomy privacy and intrude on the intimate association of librarian-patron consultations which are the basis of students’ trust in libraries.
The true threats to intellectual freedom on college and university campuses cannot be solved by outside intervention – most especially not by state intervention. We must address them within our communities and as a community of scholars. I am one of 1,800 academic members of Heterodox Academy, and also a supporter of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education – two organizations, initiated by academics, to do just that. While HA and FIRE provide platforms to discuss and practice free inquiry, neither address intellectual privacy threats as a preexisting condition. Librarians have unique expertise on the issue of privacy as it enables intellectual freedom. I invite you to join me in contributing to the work of these organizations – or, better yet, to reenergize or start our own.
I do not want higher education to be force-fed the bitter pill of state sanctions on institutional action. Academe, heal thyself.
Sarah Hartman-Caverly is an assistant librarian at Penn State Berks, where she liaises with the Engineering, Business and Computing division. Her scholarship examines the compatibility of human and machine autonomy from the perspective of intellectual freedom. Recent contributions include “Version Control” (ACRL 2017), “Our ‘Special Obligation’: Library Assessment, Learning Analytics, and Intellectual Freedom” (ACRL 2018), and “‘TRUTH Always Wins’: Dispatches from the Information War” (forthcoming ACRL 2019). Hartman-Caverly earned her MS(LIS) and MSIS from Drexel University.