Free Expression Report Card: Ben Carson
Position within the Trump Administration: Dr. Carson has been nominated by President-elect Trump to serve as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development
Previous Experience: Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, John Hopkins Hospital (1984-2013)
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a bureau which focuses on housing and neighborhood issues primarily for low-income families, does not include issues of free expression as an explicit aspect of its work. The Secretary of HUD will have far less of an impact on free expression and media freedom than other Cabinet members, such as Secretary of State or Attorney-General. But given how the HUD’s $47 billion USD annual budget includes expenditures such as grant-making for public arts programs and other cultural initiatives, and given how a Cabinet-level position will formalize Dr. Carson’s previous advisory relationship with President-elect Trump, a review of Carson’s public stances may be useful.
Government Agencies Monitoring for Political Bias
- During his 2016 presidential bid, Carson indicated that he would use a government agency to monitor for ‘political bias.’ Carson repeatedly stated—including in a June 2015 radio interview with Heidi Harris, an October 2015 interview with Glenn Beck, an October 2015 interview with NBC, and a January 2016 meeting with the editorial board of The Des Moines Register—that he would change the function of the Department of Education to have the government agency monitor educational institutions for political bias and withhold federal funding if it existed. Such monitoring would include, Carson explained, sending federal agents to “surreptitiously” monitor classrooms and libraries.
- In his October Meet the Press interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, Carson indicated his view that government monitoring of educational institutions for ‘political bias’, with the possibility of withholding federal funding upon such a finding, was constitutional. “It’s not a violation of the 1st Amendment,” he explained, “because all I’m saying is taxpayer funding should not be used for propaganda. It shouldn’t be.” When Todd pointed out that Carson’s “definition of propaganda could be what somebody else views as free speech,” Carson responded that federal agents would only investigate upon receiving student complaints.
- In his January 2016 interview with The Des Moines Register, Carson elaborated that he supported the monitoring concept for the work other government agencies, as well, referring to it as a “secret shopper” model. “Anything that the taxpayers are paying for, we ought to be monitoring it and making sure it is done appropriately.” Although The Des Moines Register asked whether such “secret shopping” monitoring should include investigations of political bias for other agencies, Carson’s response—which focused on agency inefficiency and unresponsiveness—did not provide a clear answer.
Anti-Trump Protests and Free Expression
- Carson has depicted protests of Trump’s presidential bid as infringements on free expression. In March 2016, a time at which large-scale protests were increasingly occurring outside venues where Trump was slated to give rallies—leading in some cases to such events being cancelled—Carson argued that anti-Trump protests were infringing on Trump supporters’ rights to free expression. “The problem,” he argued in an NBC interview, “is that there are those who are being taught that if somebody disagrees with you, you have the right to interfere with their First Amendment rights, their ability to express themselves, their freedom of speech.”
- During this same interview, Carson warned of an escalation of Trump supporters’ response to anti-Trump protests, saying that “victims” of the protestors “have two choices” in responding to the protests: “They can submit to them meekly . . ., or they can fight back.”
- Carson statements indicate a belief that today’s media is captured by partisan ideology to the extent that their credibility and motives are called into question. At an October 2015 speech before the National Press Club, Carson stated that reporters “were supposed to expose and inform the people in a nonpartisan way. When they become partisan, as they are, they distort the system as it was supposed to work.” In a February 2016 discussion before the National Religious Broadcasters Presidential, Carson stated his belief that “progressive individuals” were intentionally working to take over the media—as well as other groups—in order to “undermine the principles that made America great.”
Political Correctness as a Threat to Free Speech
- In his 2015 book “A More Perfect Union: What We the People Can Do to Reclaim our Constitutional Liberties,” Carson presents his view on the 1st Amendment. In the book, published during his presidential run, Carson argues: “Many assert that there is no restriction of speech in the United States and that everyone is completely free to express themselves. Unfortunately, this is a naive claim. Today the political correctness police are the biggest threat to America’s freedom of speech, and they are doing their best to squelch the opinions of ‘we the People.’”
- Carson has identified college campuses as one area where free speech is “under fire.” In a November 2015 Fox News interview discussing recent campus protests against racial discrimination, Carson lamented a lack of civil debate in the United States and criticized what he identified as a “dangerous trend” where “when…a majority can say, ‘I don’t like what you’re doing. That’s offensive, and therefore I have a right to be violent toward you or deprive you of rights, because I don’t like what you’re doing,’ that really goes against the grain of our constitutional rights.”
The Free Expression Report Cards are just one initiative of PENt-Up: The PEN Transition Update, PEN America’s effort to track, analyze, and share important expression-related updates as our nation undergoes transformation into an America we all hope to still recognize. Read more at PEN.org/pent-up
For PEN America’s review of the state of free speech on America’s college campuses, one area where Dr. Carson has directed his remarks on free expression, see our October 2016 report “And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Free Speech at U.S. Universities.”