It’s unclear whether we’ll know the exact details of what Donald Trump Jr. has to say when he speaks about “freedom of speech and issues of national significance” Tuesday at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington. That’s because the University of North Texas, which invited the president’s eldest son to give the private lecture, isn’t allowing media to be present in the room — unless they purchase a $5,000 seat at a ritzy dinner table.
UNT, one of the largest public universities in Texas, is paying Trump Jr. $100,000 to speak as part of the Kuehne Speaker Series — a fee nearly twice what he sought and received on the lecture circuit prior to daddy Trump taking his place at Mount Doom, according to the Washington Post. He’ll be provided the questions in advance. On top of that, the school is paying $125,000 to hold the event at the AT&T Stadium, all while projecting that the Kuehne Speaker Series will only net $13,000 this year, according to the Dallas Morning News.
The university’s invitation has sparked intense backlash here in Denton, with nearly 100 faculty members signing an open letter denouncing the event and calling for a suspension of the program until the selection process becomes inclusive of faculty and students. Some are planning protests on the town square Tuesday.
At a time when the president himself is threatening to revoke NBC’s license, a public university barring media from covering a talk on “freedom of speech” by the president’s son isn’t merely unethical. It’s part of an ongoing assault on press freedom and the First Amendment.
One UNT professor told me that she has been advised by a dean to refer all media queries regarding Trump Jr.’s speech to a university spokesperson. The professor said the message has “clear implications” and has already chilled non-tenured professors like her from speaking to the press.
This comes as the Guardian reported that the University of Florida gave white nationalist Richard Spencer full control over the fiercely protested “freedom of speech” event he held Thursday, including the authority to select which journalists and audience members can be present.
What we’re witnessing is a disturbing new iteration of the “free speech zone.” But rather than trying to tightly control when and where students are allowed to protest, some universities are establishing safe spaces for powerful and dangerous voices, sometimes in concert with private interests. University campuses are supposed to be the place for authentic exchanges of information and the competition of ideas. But instead officials at UNT, the University of Florida and elsewhere are offering a platform to the alt-right and its sympathizers under the guise of “freedom of speech,” sometimes at an exorbitant cost to the university.
Particularly troubling to many students and faculty is the role of G. Brint Ryan, the chairman of the UNT board of regents. Ryan is a major GOP donor and the CEO of Ryan LLC, a corporate tax services firm that’s currently the top sponsor of the Kuehne Speaker Series. The UNT alum also advised Trump on tax policy during the campaign donated at least $83,000 to the Republican National Committee last fall. In other words, Ryan is more than just a higher education leader — he and his business interests are tied to the GOP and Trump.
Ryan’s involvement in the Trump speech suggests that he’s using UNT not to advance the free exchange of ideas but rather to further his own personal and political agenda. Given the school’s restrictive history on free speech rights, it should know better.
Eight years ago, I sat in then-UNT President Gretchen Bataille’s office with other students who had coalesced in a campaign to eliminate the campus’ six “free speech zones.” Under university policy, students were required to pre-register two days in advance if they wanted to hold events or simply table on campus. After Bataille refused to change the policy, we contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which threatened to sue the school. In October 2009, Bataille announced that the free speech zones would be eliminated.
This legacy of limiting the political activity of students goes hand-in-hand with the corporatization of the public university. While students may have broken out of zones where their political speech was regulated, they now find themselves locked out of basic decisions about political speakers on campus. Meanwhile, they continue to bear the costs of austerity: budget cuts, tuition hikes, increased reliance on adjunct instructors and thus, declining job security.
While Ryan argues that, “If Chelsea Clinton wants to come next time, that’s great,” his statement is simply not representative of history of the UNT’s lecture circuit.
Nearly every year since eliminating the free speech zones a decade ago, the university has paid a nationally recognized right-winger — Rudy Giuliani and T. Boone Pickens, and four members of the Bush cabinet: W. himself, former defense secretary Robert Gates, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden. (Many faced disruptions from students — a likely reason Trump Jr.’s speech is being handled off-site.) During that same period, some liberal speakers, like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bill Nye, have also spoken on campus, but have been largely outnumbered.
What will the next decade of the school’s lecture series bring? An invitation to four members of the Trump cabinet at another luxury, VIP “free-speech zone?” You can bet that, like Tuesday, most students and faculty won’t be there.