The left should support Trump in protecting free speech on college campuses (OPINION)

After video of a conservative activist getting punched in the face at the University of California-Berkeley went viral, President Donald Trump vowed to sign an executive order tying federal research funds to colleges' support of free speech.

But conservatives wouldn't be the only ones to benefit from more free speech on campus.

Video of a conservative activist being assaulted on the campus of UC Berkeley went viral last month.

Many saw the video. Many heard the smack of fist meeting skin and were transfixed by the pure rage on the face of the assailant. But what bothered me most wasn’t the assault itself.

What I couldn’t take my eyes off were the people in the background. Standing silently. Hoping someone else would intervene, then stepping aside to let the assailant stroll away from the crime scene. My eyes were set on those grainy faces, not because of what they did, but because of what they didn’t do.

For too long, most Americans have been no better than those bystanders. Standing idly by while thugs and bullies posing as social justice warriors stifle the speech of the few with violence and intimidation. I’ve been on more than 100 college campuses in the past three years fighting for free speech, and I’ve seen those types of people all too often.

[RELATED: Berkeley assault suspect now faces THREE FELONY counts, one misdemeanor (UPDATE)]

President Trump’s declaration on March 2 that he would issue an executive order to withdraw funding from universities that don’t “support free speech” is a direct rebuke to those who would stifle it, as well as those who would rather do nothing. While the White House has yet to release details on what such an order would entail, the fact that such a conversation is being held in the first place is a step in the right direction.

For obvious reasons, conservatives were quick to praise the president. After all, we’ve long been begging the media and politicians to pay attention to the war being waged against conservative and libertarian students on campuses. But liberals should be the most supportive of an executive order to incentivize colleges to defend speech on campus.

Having spoken to thousands of students in the past year, it’s those on the left who are suffering most from the current system, which has suppressed speech and muted controversial ideas. While conservative students are constantly having to defend their ideas and debate their points of view, liberal students often go unchallenged and, as a result, miss out on the whole point of going to college: being challenged.

When universities enable silencing of certain ideas, they not only further exacerbate the political polarization on campuses, but they also hinder the ability of students to debate and learn what the other side has to offer. When you only hear one worldview, your ability to defend that view is greatly diminished. To put it simply, universities that want to protect students from the dangers of free speech are curtailing their intellectual development.

[RELATED: Phillips: Colleges are ‘crippling’ students by stifling free speech]

Put yourself in the shoes of an 18-year old. You arrive on your college campus as a politically apathetic freshman, and pretty soon you’re told in your orientation that any time you hear an opinion that makes you uncomfortable, you should report it to the bias response team. Challenged with a political take you don’t like? You’re told to label that “hate speech” and go to the administration. On the first day of class, your professors make clear their liberal views and rant against the “hate” and “intolerance” from the other side. Pretty soon, even the most tepid conservative ideas sound extreme.

How would you respond then, when you find out that a right-leaning speaker is coming to campus? What would you do when you see a student soliciting signups for their conservative club? Would you attend the speech and engage with those students, viewing their ideas as a learning opportunity? Or would you label them hate speech and pressure the university to banish them from campus? I’m sure you’d like to think of yourself as the exception, but you’re likely to revert to the latter. And that’s a problem.

Right now, our college system is churning out hundreds of thousands of college students who have been shielded from debate and left unprepared for the real world. When universities stifle free speech, they are at best coddling students and at worst, crippling them. What better place to hone your debate skills and challenge your deeply held beliefs than a college campus?

If Americans on all sides of the political spectrum want to see an educated electorate that can peacefully debate and exchange ideas, then we must take action on our college campuses. And that starts with supporting President Trump’s executive order.

This op-ed was originally published by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Cabot_Phillips