Last Friday, just after President Donald Trump announced a campaign stop at Eastern Kentucky University’s Alumni Coliseum, emails started flying around campus.
Professors emailed each other, students emailed professors and lots more people emailed President Michael Benson, some in support of the event, but many in opposition.
That discussion ended with an open letter signed by 120 faculty and staff opposing Trump’s visit.
Their opposition was not, as English professor Gerald Nachtwey explained, to Trump’s appearance in general, as faculty appreciate that free speech on campus includes those with whom you disagree.
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“But a number of us thought a collective statement from the faculty was really in order to express the idea of a campaign that has done so much to undermine the values of higher education, particularly scientific inquiry, to say nothing of a campaign that has worked to shut down the free speech of those who oppose it,” Nachtwey said. “What also motivated us almost immediately was messages from students saying they were scared and confused about why this is happening.”
The letter was sent Wednesday to Benson and the EKU Board of Regents.
“As a group, we among the faculty subscribe to a diverse set of political beliefs which mirror those of the student body and the Commonwealth as a whole, and we are fully committed to encouraging the expression of that diversity of beliefs,” the letter reads. “Yet we must object to this campaign which has consistently, openly, and unambiguously attacked the values of inquiry, learning, and free speech which lie at the heart of higher education and form the core mission of this University.”
Benson has already sent campus-wide emails and a letter to the faculty senate, in which he said EKU will remain non-partisan throughout the event.
“The rental of EKU facilities for a political campaign rally has certainly evoked strong feelings and opinions,” he wrote. “As a public institution, EKU’s freedom of speech policies and mission for public access necessitate fair and open use of our campus facilities. And a decision to NOT rent a campus facility cannot be made based on content of speech. “
EKU officials said they don’t yet know the full extent of the costs of Trump’s visit to tout U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, adding that the contract signed with the Trump campaign forbids them from releasing financial details. The administration has not yet responded to the Herald-Leader’s request for the contract under the Kentucky Open Records Act, which generally forbids public agencies from hiding the details of signed contracts.
“We note with great frustration that ensuring the safety of rally attendees, protesters, students, staff, and faculty will put a great financial burden on the University, the City of Richmond, Madison County, and the State of Kentucky at a time when budgets for all are very limited,” faculty wrote in their open letter. “From an economic perspective alone, the rally is certain to have a negative impact on our community.”
The issue of free speech on campus has become a heated one nationwide in the past few years, in part due to incidents where conservative speakers were prevented from appearing because of student protests. Last year, conservative provocateur Milo Yiannapoulous’ appearance at Stanford was canceled after student protests turned deadly.
Younger Americans do not appear to agree that all speech should be protected under the First Amendment; a 2015 report from the Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of millennials think the government should prevent people from saying offensive statements about minority groups.
Ginny Whitehouse, a EKU journalism professor who specializes in First Amendment issues, said it is concerning when people want to limit the speech of those they disagree with.
“This is a public university and as a public university, we are all about being a place for free exchange of ideas, including the ideas of people we disagree with,” she said. “The same free speech rights that allow President Trump to come give the protesters the right to speak. We believe that if you don’t like what someone is saying the remedy is not to shut it down, but with more speech, not less.”
EKU will be on fall break the Monday and Tuesday following Trump’s Saturday appearance, so it’s not clear how many students will be on campus. But dorms will remain open and two student marches have already been planned for Thursday and Saturday afternoon.
Representatives of EKU’s student groups for Democrats and Republicans did not return calls seeking comment.
Freshman Jesse Day says most people he’s talked to are opposed to Trump’s visit, but also understand he must be allowed to speak. But like faculty signees, he thinks Trump contradicts many of the concepts that EKU tries to teach students.
“Morally speaking, I think it’s ridiculous for someone like Trump to speak on any college campus — places of higher education — given his actions and beliefs,” Day said, citing Trump’s recent mockery of Christine Blaisey Ford and her accusations of sexual assault against recently sworn-in Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. “I think that having him speak on a campus with a history of sexual assault like EKU is kind of damaging to our credibility as a ‘safe and inclusive’ campus.”
EKU officials have not yet announced where protesters will be allowed Saturday near the coliseum.
Whitehouse said she hopes students and residents will use those places for peaceful protest.
“President Trump has said many things that discourage public debate — he belittles people and by making veiled threats and through bullying on social media. The actions he takes are very chilling and therefore are of great concern,” she said. “So yes, President Trump can come and speak and other people will offer their opinions, and that’s what the First Amendment is all about and that’s what being part of a democracy is all about.”