UMass student on stage with Trump as president signs campus free-speech order

  • Nicholas Consolini, president of the UMass College Republicans, talks about his club bringing former White House press secretary and Republican National Committee strategist Sean Spicer to speak at the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center in Amherst on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018. The club prohibited photography inside the concert hall during Spicer’s appearance there. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • President Donald Trump speaks before signing an executive order on “improving free inquiry, transparency, and accountability on campus” in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, in Washington. Looking on, second left, is University of Massachusetts student Nicholas Consolini, president of the College Republicans. AP PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/24/2019 6:39:09 AM

AMHERST — As President Donald Trump signed an executive order that he says will protect free speech on college campuses on Thursday, University of Massachusetts Amherst student Nicholas Consolini looked on from just a few feet away.

Consolini was part of a group that joined Trump on stage at the White House as he signed the order. The executive order states that colleges and universities must agree to protect free speech in order to access federal research and educational funding.

“There’s not too many people that get to be that close in the White House with the president, no matter who it is,” said Consolini, president of the school’s College Republicans club, “so I was honored to be there.”

Under the executive order, private universities must hold to their own campus free speech policies. Public universities must continue to support first amendment rights, which was already required before the order.

The executive order has been welcomed by conservative groups such as Turning Point USA, but has also received criticism from some prominent Republicans, such as Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., of the Senate education committee.

“I don’t want to see Congress or the president or the department of anything creating speech codes to define what you can say on campus,” Alexander said. “The U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech. Federal courts define and enforce it. The Department of Justice can weigh in.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and American Council on Education have also criticized the executive order.

“No matter how this order is implemented, it is neither needed nor desirable, and could lead to unwanted federal micromanagement of the cutting-edge research that is critical to our nation’s continued vitality and global leadership,” said Ted Mitchell, American Council on Education president.

But Consolini believes that the executive order, which also addresses student loan debt and transparency, will be “very useful” in holding institutions accountable for protecting free speech.

He also sees the order as reaching beyond party lines.

“Hopefully this executive order brings people together,” Consolini said. “This doesn’t favor left or right, it favors open discussion, open inquiry, open debate. So I’m hoping this should be a very bipartisan, unifying order.”

Consolini is no stranger to debates surrounding free speech on college campuses; in 2018, he filed a lawsuit in partnership with Young Americans for Liberty against UMass, alleging that a university policy that limited the time and location during which students could hold speeches or rallies was unconstitutional. UMass eventually rescinded the policy, and the lawsuit was withdrawn.

As a result of these actions, the White House extended Consolini an invitation to the executive order signing, Consolini said over the phone while on break at a College Republicans convention on Saturday.

Consolini, along with some conservative groups, said he believes that American colleges and universities are in the midst of a free speech crisis, with right-of-center “or maybe even moderate” issues particularly affected.

At the signing, Trump said that colleges and universities have “tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shut down the voices of great young Americans.”

But a report published by center-right think tank the Niskanen Center shows that incidents limiting free speech on college campuses actually declined in 2018.

In the report, Jeffrey Adam Sachs, a political scientist at Acadia University, presents incidents of speaker disinvitation attempts; professors being fired for political speech; and the number of colleges and universities with “restrictive speech codes.”

According to the report, disinvitation attempts — incidents where part of the campus community tries to prevent an invited speaker from speaking — fell from 43 in 2016 to nine in 2018.

Meanwhile, the number of faculty members fired for political speech fell from a high of 28 in 2017 to eight terminated or demoted in 2018. The percentage of colleges and universities receiving a “red light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonpartisan organization focusing on civil liberties at colleges and universities, was also at an “historic” low of 28.5 percent of institutions.

FIRE data also shows that surveyed institutions featured commencement speakers who “were far less likely to be deplatformed than in previous years,” although the group reasons that this factor was “attributed to the decision by administrators to only invite non-political (and in particular non-conservative) speakers.”

Commenting on the report findings, Consolini said that there are “there are definitely issues still on campus,” citing an incident where a man allegedly punched a conservative activist at the University of California at Berkley in February. He added that he has had people yell at him or threaten to call campus police when tabling and talking about conservative issues, although he said most are not as aggressive.

“Certain individuals, a very small percentage of them, are just very resistant to having their opinions challenged,” Consolini said, “or just seeing someone they don’t agree with, which I think is just very anti-American.”

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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