Proponents of the executive order have applauded the president for promoting the free exchange of ideas, while opponents both locally and nationally say the executive order promotes hate speech and white nationalist rhetoric on campuses like East Tennessee State University.
"This week, the Trump administration brought America’s attention to a longstanding problem plaguing college campuses across the nation: the left’s sustained assault on free speech. Across the country, far too many conservative students are undermined, silenced and even physically attacked as a result of the toxic culture on our campuses today,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a news release Friday.
While conservatives point to instances such as the string of militant student protests against right-wing speakers like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos on University of California-Berkley’s campus that resulted in violent clashes in 2017, liberal opponents and those on the left say free speech should also apply to those protesting against speakers.
Washington County Democratic Party Chairperson Kate Craig said the executive order was not necessarily meant to protect free speech as a whole. She questioned what type of behavior this order aims to protect on college campuses.
Craig recalled an incident in 2016 when former ETSU student Tristan Rettke taunted Black Lives Matter demonstrators with a gorilla mask and a banana on a noose before being charged with civil rights intimidation. Rettke has since left ETSU and his trial is set for July.
“President Trump’s latest executive order is designed to sound constructive and constitutional without any actual intent found within the purpose or language to further free speech and foster civil debate — all of which can already be found in college classrooms and on university campuses across the nation,” Craig said Friday.
“I believe this order is intended to protect speech from people who simultaneously take no responsibility for the actions their speech motivates and therefore further solidifies the safety of their platforms ... this executive order is specifically intended to protect the antagonists and the inciters, not marginalized communities of students who attend institutions of higher education nor the free flow of thought and ideas,” the chairperson later continued.
The Johnson City Press spoke to ETSU students Friday and asked them weigh in on campus free speech and Trump’s executive order.
Mitchell Lamont, a 20-year-old English major, said Rettke was the only person at ETSU whom he could recall being escorted off campus. In cases like that, Lamont said the line between what is and isn’t acceptable on campus is pretty clear.
“The only incident I can remember when someone was actually escorted off the premises and later arrested was the time the man dressed up as a monkey with the bananas and the noose,” he said, adding Rettke should have been removed from campus for that incident.
Bryton Westmoreland, a 19-year-old African-American student studying physical education, considered what ETSU’s response should be if an actual Nazi came to speak on campus.
“If he isn’t causing any harm to anybody, and he’s just walking around with his T-shirt and his flag, it’s fine,” he said, adding that explicitly advocating violence should have a speaker removed from campus.
Westmoreland grew up in Pulaski, Tennessee, considered by many to be the birthplace of the Ku-Klux-Klan. There, he said overt racism was much more common.
“It’s not as racist (here) as it is down there,” he continued. “Now, when I see that, I just usually don’t pay no mind.”
Jeff Howard, associate vice president for student life and enrollment at ETSU, said the local campus is already complying to the executive order’s guidelines on protecting free speech and said he believes the campus is already “very open to free speech.”
“We can only get involved in a situation when there is an imminent threat, a direct threat or someone is inciting violence,” he said. “Even if the institutional values are contrary to what these speakers are saying on campus, you’re pretty limited on your response.
“If we have a speaker on any topic that is controversial in any way, we might get a phone call or visit from faculty, staff or a student, and our response is pretty clear — it’s protected speech,” he continued. “As a public institution, we must protect those free-speech rights.”
Howard said free speech goes both ways and said ETSU students are allowed to protest and voice opposition to speakers, as they have in the past.
“You have a right to respond,” he said. “If we host any kind of event or speaker on campus, those who have a differing opinion have a right to come and speak their beliefs.”
Johnson City Press was unable to immediately reach members of ETSU’s conservative organizations or local legislators for further comment.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article stated that Craig said the order was a move to protect far-right hate speech. She did not specifically use those words.