More than ever, free speech is under attack on college campuses across America. 

Spending tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for college is “a huge investment to live four years in fear and self-censorship,” says Cherise Trump, the executive director of Speech First, a membership organization that litigates on behalf of its members against universities that violate students’ right to free speech. 

In February, Speech First filed a lawsuit against the University of Houston over a policy that Trump says limits students’ First Amendment rights. She joins the “Problematic Women” podcast to explain the lawsuit and what students can practically do to protect their right to freedom of speech on their college campuses. 

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Virginia Allen: Free speech is under attack on college campuses. Today, I am so excited, Cherise, that you are here with us. Cherise Trump is the executive director of Speech First, as well as the host of the “Well Said” podcast. Cherise, thank you so much for being here.

Cherise Trump: Thanks so much for having me.

Allen: There’s been some big news recently. Speech First has actually filed a lawsuit against the University of Houston on a matter of free speech. The University of Houston passed a policy that you-all looked at and said, “Wait a second. This violates the First Amendment right of free speech.”

Tell me what exactly is the going on here, and why did Speech First want to get involved?

Trump: Just to give some background: We’re a membership organization that litigates on behalf of our members against universities that violate our student members’ free speech rights.

In saying that, our members brought this policy to our attention. It’s been active on the campus for a while. We don’t know how long. But I can tell you, when you read it, it’s pretty appalling. It flies directly in the face of the First Amendment. It is under their harassment Title IX policy, actually, on the campus.

What’s interesting is, a lot of universities do this. They’ll put speech restrictions or speech codes on their harassment policies, specifically, so that they can curtail whatever speech and control it on campus. But they get the disciplinary arm that comes along with the harassment policy.

They can actually enforce whatever they want to do with speech, which as a student, it’s terrifying.

The idea of being accused of harassment and having to get processed through the Title IX office just because you said a joke that someone didn’t like, or you offended someone with something that you said, or you maybe made a comment about stereotypes, this is what this university has set itself up for.

Students are afraid to be reported because of this.

Allen: Wow. Give us an example. What would be a potential violation of this policy?

Trump: The fascinating thing is, the University of Houston is actually pretty transparent on their website. They actually give examples of what they consider [it] to be. Which is why we found it so appalling, because they gave examples of denigrating jokes, of stereotyping, microaggressions against protected class.

They merge it with a lot of this diversity, equity, inclusion language that you see oftentimes on university campuses these days. What ends up happening is, these students think that this is something they can’t escape.

Our past cases have covered a lot of issues under “bias response” teams. Those are anonymous reporting systems where students can actually report on one another for speech against each other or something they see on social media.

Houston actually doesn’t have a bias response team, but their harassment policy essentially does the same thing, where students are afraid that they’re going to be reported for having any kind of mainstream opinion. They can have an opinion that someone might just find offensive enough to report them to the harassment office.

Allen: A lot of this sounds like it’s probably up for interpretation, because something that I might find offensive, you might not. Right?

Trump: Absolutely. This is honestly why the Supreme Court has upheld that hate speech is actually protected speech under the First Amendment.

It’s not that we encourage hate speech or anything like that or encourage harassment. We just think that the policies that are going to be on these campuses can’t violate the First Amendment rights. Because like you said, it’s very subjective.

When you use terms that upset people, offensive or hate, that’s all in the eye of the beholder. How can schools actually enforce these without actually violating the rights of the students?

Allen: There’s three students, correct, that have come forward—

Trump: Yeah.

Allen: … and essentially partnered with you-all, or you-all with them, on this lawsuit? Why did those three students say, “Hey, even though we’re just college students, we’re going to stand up and say something about this”?

Trump: These students, they feel like they can’t express themselves on campus. They can’t even participate in mainstream debates. For example, if they wanted to talk about the transgender athlete issue, which is big in Texas right now because Texas just passed the recent bill, or there’s a lot of talk about passing a bill on whether or not transgenders can participate in female or male sports in colleges.

This is a huge item of debate. But conservatives on campus who actually do represent a majority of conservative ideas, they can’t speak up on the issue. They don’t want to participate in debates just out of fear that they’ll get reported for harassment because they offend someone with their comments.

It’s not that they want to go around offending people, but their ideas might be considered offensive.

Allen: What would you say to someone who would argue, “Well, it’s the university’s right to have this policy. And if students don’t like it, they can just go to another university”?

Trump: [The] University of Houston is a public school. It’s taxpayer-funded, which means it’s a public institution. They, unfortunately for them, have to follow the First Amendment. They have to follow the Constitution. They are very beholden to it because of this.

If you’re at a private school, it’s a different story. There’s not as much of a legal avenue at private universities. That’s why at Speech First we do talk to donors and alumni of the private universities to let them know how appalling some of these policies are on their campuses that they give to, because there’s not a whole lot we can do legally for the students on those campuses.

Allen: When you think about the University of Houston, obviously, like you say, it’s a public university. But when you think about the most liberal campuses in the U.S., [the] University of Houston doesn’t necessarily come to mind as No. 1. Are there a lot of other college campuses that have policies like these?

Trump: Yeah. It was pretty shocking to see something like this in Texas, because you would assume that Texas, it’s a red state, it’s going to …

Allen: … love freedom.

Trump: … Exactly. Freedom of speech would be a big deal in Texas. But it’s actually pretty widespread. We’ve known over the years, for decades, that universities in general tend to lean left. They tend to go a little more progressive just by the nature of the institution and the academy and the types of students it attracts.

That’s something that I think conservatives on campus have dealt with for a really long time, in a really mature manner for both sides. They’ve been able to have open discourse and debate for years. They’ve been able to debate with their professors in class without being afraid.

But now there’s all of these policies, and it’s very widespread. A lot of these policies have come into play where they’re either under harassment policies, or they’re under bias response team policies, or there are computer network restrictions on what they can send via email.

This is something that students are becoming much more aware of. They can actually meet real disciplinary action on their universities for just saying something that might offend someone. This is why I think it’s so important to recognize how widespread this is and how insidious it is, because it is hidden in the fine print of a lot of these policies.

I always encourage students [to] read the student handbooks. Do your research on a school before you apply to go there and agree to give them hundreds of thousands of dollars, because that’s a huge investment to live four years in fear and self-censorship.

Allen: Really, though. What would be your advice to college students who know, “My school has a policy like that”? Or who are thinking, “I want to go to this school, but I don’t know if I can handle the policies that they do have? How do I stand up and how do I defend freedom when I’m just trying to pass my English class?”

Trump: Exactly. No, it’s really an unfortunate situation for them right now. I do feel bad for current students, because it’s quite the uphill battle. They have to have the courage to not go to some of the higher, renowned schools, like Ivy Leagues, because these are some of the worst offenders of free speech, you know?

I think that’s one piece of advice I’d give to students. Do your research, look into it, and then have the courage to say “no” to a more prestigious institution that might make your next four years miserable. You might not actually learn anything.

The other piece of advice I would give is, universities always want you to feel like they control your environment and that they’re charge. You’re an adult. You’re autonomous now as a student. Keep that in mind. They are not your parents. You need to know the laws. You need to know your free speech rights.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to students who actually don’t know what their free speech rights are, and they wouldn’t recognize compelled speech. If this university said they had to say something, they wouldn’t actually know or recognize that was against their constitutional rights.

Students, the onus is on you to know your rights, to know what is a violation. Come to Speech First. Tell us what’s going on on your campus, and that’s something that we can help you with on the legal path.

Allen: If students are listening in and they are saying, “Wow, I need resources. I don’t even know what my college campus’ policies are,” they can come to you-all?

Trump: Yeah. Absolutely. I encourage them to do the research on their campus policies. Look at their harassment policies. A lot of the stuff is hidden in the [diversity, equity, inclusion] offices these days. Just search your school name and bias response team and see if your school has one.

Now, we are publishing a report next month, and that will be on bias response teams. We’ll have a whole list of universities. We looked at over 800 schools, which ones have bias response teams.

But do your research, look it up online. See if your school’s been in the news. College Fix and Campus Reform and, I’m sure, Heritage has plenty of stuff out there, that’s doing research on the universities for them, so they just have to Google it.

But I would say come to Speech First. If you feel like there’s something going on on your campus that violates your free speech rights, absolutely, shoot us an email, sign up for membership, and let us know.

Allen: Big scale, thinking about the future of public universities and really just universities in general, by and large, are they too far gone? Can we pull—

Trump: Oh, that’s a good question.

Allen: … them back?

Trump: I’m not entirely sure if they’re too far gone. There are folks out there who are trying to create solutions, they’re starting their own universities. I think [former New York Times’ editorialist] Bari Weiss and her friends are starting the University of Austin, I think.

They are going to really represent free speech and just open dialogue and really push students to challenge themselves in that way. There’s a lot of universities that do value research. I think there’s enough around where students could still get a really decent education and still exercise their rights.

But I would also say, until we figure out whether or not these institutions can suffice with these bad policies, or like you said, universities are too far gone to rescue, we have to recognize that all of the leaders, all of the people in the corporate world, all of the folks in government and in education who are going to be teaching future students, they all have to go through these institutions to get their credentials.

Like it or not, whether we have faith that the university systems are going to survive, we need to deal with the problem now and address it now. Because what’s happening is, these students are graduating, and they’re graduating with a mindset of complacency.

They’re not choosing a side. They’re not standing up for their convictions. They’d actually just rather keep their head down for four years, get the degree, get it over with. What kind of a leader is that going to give us in these institutions?

Allen: No, it is really frightening when you think about the long-term effects of all of these very, very far-left institutions. They are the ones that are training our future politicians, our future teachers. It’s like, we all should be concerned about this, not just the young people looking for a good college.

Trump: Not to mention a lot of the research that policymakers consume and read and look at for the laws that they want to pass, that inform those laws that they want to pass, a lot of that comes from the academy. A lot of that comes from grants in these universities, so it’s important to recognize how influential universities are in our society.

Like I said, whether we like it or not right now, we still need to rectify the issue that they’re violating free speech. They’re putting students in a situation where they have to either choose to keep their heads down and ignore what’s going on, or they can take advantage of these tyrannical policies and actually start reporting on each other. That’s not a good sign, either.

Allen: No.

Trump: That’s not a good path for students, either. I can’t imagine.

Allen: Well, Cherise, before we let you go as, as a fellow podcaster, I can’t let you go without letting you talk a little bit about your podcast “Well Said.” Give us the pitch. Why should we listen?

Trump: Thanks for that. I know. “Well Said” is something that I wanted to do for a while, because I wanted to have people who actually, not just study free speech or higher education, but who can tie that back to the American cultural issues that we’re seeing today.

I interview anyone in the higher education field, policy field, advocacy field—sometimes students, sometimes professors, sometimes think tankers. I’ve interviewed a few folks at Heritage. They’re awesome. I will say that it’s quite widespread, the people that we bring on. But the idea is to just show how the free speech issue is pervasive, and how it’s going through various fields and various institutions, and what that will look like in the future.

The goal is, obviously, to dig really deep into that. It comes out about twice a month.

Allen: So fun. All right. Last question before we go. This is for our “Problematic Women” podcast audience. There’s a question that we love to ask guests on that show and that is: Do you consider yourself a feminist, yes or no? Why or why not?

Trump: Should have prepared for this.

Allen: No right or wrong answer. Everyone has such a different answer to this question.

Trump: I know the traditional argument in that. Can we reclaim the “feminist” term as conservative women, whether or not that’s possible? It depends. I guess to me, feminism means empowering women.

Obviously, the way the feminist movement has chosen to empower women, I think, actually does the exact opposite. My answer to that is, no, I’m not what we would currently define as a feminist. I would be the opposite of a feminist. I hope that answered your question.

Allen: It does.

Trump: … I can come back with a more prepared one.

Allen: That is perfect. I love it. Cherise Trump, thank you so much. Everyone, be sure to check out the “Well Said” podcast as well as your website, give us that website name.

Trump: Yes, Real easy.

Allen: Amazing. Thank you so much.

Trump: Thanks so much.

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