In 1951, William F. Buckley, Jr. published a book entitled: “God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom.’” This work is the first instance of the all too familiar argument that conservative speech is censored on college campuses. During the 1950s – when capitalism was at its peak, and the social movements of the 1960s had yet to kick off – this accusation was easily dismissed by the American public. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Buckley’s persecution complex gained traction in mainstream conservatism.
Since then, conservative politicians and pundits have made it a point to express their disgust at the alleged censorship that is being forced upon students all across the country. For example, when FOX News anchor Martha MacCallum reported about the incident at Rod’s Coffee House last year, she accused the staff of Rod’s for not allowing the College Republicans to “think what [they] wanted to think.” In a segment from July of 2017, MacCallum similarly spoke about the “problem with college campuses,” in light of the Berkley riots against Milo Yiannopoulos: “For months and really for years, we have witnessed efforts by a small but vocal minority on college campuses to silence conservatives.”
Many conservatives, especially Trump supporters, have taken a similar stance. One FOX contributor criticized colleges for “silencing” pro-life students, equating the erasure of pro-life chalk messages to Colin Kaepernick being blacklisted from the NFL. Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed in an interview that there is “too much suppression of free and open speech on college campuses today.” He also promised that the Department of Justice would “do what it can to make sure colleges don’t limit free speech.”
While conservative students being kicked out of coffee shops because of their MAGA hats may be a social debate worth having, it is, under no circumstances, a legal debate which has any ground to stand on. It is neither illegal nor unconstitutional for a private business to refuse to serve someone because of their political speech. The First Amendment protects private citizens from government censorship, and indeed, it is the current presidential administration that is exhibiting the most insidious and legally questionable violations of free speech. For the past year, the Trump administration has systematically acted to censor the free speech of public officials and bureaucrats, and nowhere do we see people like Martha MacCallum or Jeff Sessions – who claim to be champions of free speech – acknowledging it.
In December, the CDC was briefed about not including seven terms in their upcoming budget proposal to Congress: these were “evidence-based,” “science-based,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “fetus.” The latter two omissions – “transgender” and “fetus” – are particularly egregious. Trump has packed his office with anti-abortion officials, in both the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and his own advisory circles: Charmaine Yoest is the assistant secretary at HHS, and was also the CEO of a prominent anti-abortion group; Valerie Huber, the chief of staff to the assistant secretary of health, is the former president of an abstinence-only education group; and Katy Talento, Trump’s personal adviser on healthcare, is an anti-abortion activist who spouts lies about abortion causing cancer and miscarriages. In addition, it’s clear that the Trump administration has no love of transgender people, considering his out of the blue tweet, which allegedly banned transgender soldiers from serving in the military. The presence of Mike Pence – an infamous homophobe and transphobe – has no doubt aggravated Trump’s anti-LGBTQ policies.
At the time, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, the director of the CDC, denied the existence of the seven “banned words”; however, she recently had to resign in light of revelations about her financial ties to big tobacco companies. Other CDC officials claimed that these words were only forbidden in budget documents, and not scientific memos or briefings, meaning that scientists were told to not use these words in order to appeal to the Republican Congress that they needed funding from. Nevertheless, the context of the “ban” does not change the fact that an independent, scientific organization should not be forced to omit terms or ideas for clearly ideological reasons. Rush Holt, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told Vox that “[encouraging people not to use certain words] will lead to a kind of self-censorship. It’s trouble if ideology is interfering with the use of certain words.”
Although this may be the most well-known instance of Trumpian censorship, it is far from the only example. Since the inauguration, numerous federal agencies have been directed to remove language and documents related to climate change from official government websites. The day after the inauguration, the Department of the Interior ordered that all DOI Twitter accounts be suspended immediately, after the National Parks Services Twitter was critical of Trump. In response, a “rogue” worker from the Badlands National Park “hijacked” their Twitter page and tweeted a series of climate change facts.
Since then, the Trump administration has continued to crack down on any and all references to climate change within the EPA, HHS, and DOT. The HHS no longer has a “climate change” navigation menu on its website, and the EPA under Scott Pruitt has deleted information about environmental regulations. Some federal officials have been prohibited from attending international conferences on combating climate change, and some CDC employees have been ordered not to speak to reporters without government consent.
And although Scott Pruitt resigned as chief of the EPA, the witch hunt that he started in the agency lives on: dozens of EPA employees – most of whom are longtime civil servants – have had FOIA requests submitted against them for copies of their emails which mentioned either Pruitt or Trump. The New York Times tracked down the source of these requests to “America Rising,” a Republican group which conducts opposition research on Democratic rivals. Public records show that the EPA, under Scott Pruitt, hired an affiliated group, “Definers Public Affairs”, to conduct opposition research into their own employees: specifically those who have been outspoken about the Trump administration’s denial of climate change.
But the Trump administration isn’t only censoring scientists. In March of 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau removed all questions regarding sexual and gender orientation from the proposed 2020 census. Although previous censuses have not had questions on sexual or gender identity, the original draft of the 2020 census did include such questions until Trump’s inauguration, when the questions were removed, allegedly “due to an error.”
In April of 2017, the Department of Homeland Security submitted requests for the private information of several Twitter accounts, simply because they were anti-Trump. Twitter promptly sued the DHS, and they withdrew their request the next day. However, there will undoubtedly be more demands like this in the future, since Trump also repealed FCC regulations which required internet service providers to protect their customers’ data.
Trump is also infamous for his systematic attacks on the free press with accusations of “fake news.” In October of 2017, he even tweeted that the Senate Intel Committee should investigate the “Fake News Networks” (i.e. CNN and MSNBC, but not FOX News). One of the clearest signs of dictatorial behavior is persecution and control of the media: this is evident in the state control of the press in oppressive regimes like North Korea and Saudi Arabia. By de-legitimizing the news outlets which are critical of him, Trump is trying to create an American press which is made up of journalists and pundits who only praise him.
Indeed, this past January, the President’s personal lawyer tried to stop the publication of Michael Wolff’s controversial tell-all, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” a book which is extremely critical of the administration. Charles Harder sent a cease and desist letter to Wolff and his publisher, in which “Mr. Trump demands that you immediately cease and desist from any further publication, release, or dissemination of the Book…and that you issue a full and complete retraction and apology to [Mr. Trump]…” This is one of many of Trump’s attempts to silence the free press, with either baseless accusations or threats of libel cases. Only three months into his presidency, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) issued a statement condemning Trump’s attacks on the media: the statement was joined by more than 80 other organizations, including the ACLU and the Associated Press.
And these instances of censorship are only the ones that Trump has enacted while he has been in office. As aforementioned, Trump has a well-known history of libel lawsuits – he’s been involved in over 4,000 lawsuits over the past 30 years, and he has lost every single one which claimed libel.
In summation, Donald Trump has a disturbing and pervasive record of censorship, both before and after his inauguration. But his attempts to censor governmental officials and private members of the press are especially troubling, considering that he is acting in his official capacity as president when issuing these orders. As mentioned previously, the First Amendment only guarantees freedom from censorship from the government, and not private institutions. While pundits on FOX News continue to be riled up by legal nonissues of conservative students being “silenced” on college campuses, the most egregious, systematic governmental censorship in the history of our country is taking place.
In a letter from 1948, George Orwell wrote the following warning to all free societies: “Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.”
These examples of censorship under the Trump administration may seem “trivial in isolation,” but they have an undoubtedly cumulative effect on this country. And that effect is harmful to every single American, no matter what side of the political spectrum they are on. If conservatives who follow in the footsteps of William F. Buckley, Jr. are truly concerned about censorship in American society, they should look no further than the leader of their own party. Because liberal professors on college campuses are not the biggest threat to the First Amendment: Donald Trump is.