U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, speaking in Philadelphia Monday, decried what she called a lack of free speech on college campuses, saying that America has "abandoned truth" and calling for a greater focus on civil civic discourse.
DeVos, who spoke to college and high school students at the National Constitution Center on Constitution Day, said universities have become battlegrounds for First Amendment rights, with speakers — often conservative — being shouted down, marginalized, and even threatened with physical violence.
"More than a few institutions have been unwilling to provide a forum for their students to discuss serious policy matters that affect our country. I can and have found other forums, but what about students who cannot?" DeVos said.
School staff, DeVos said, "too often attempt to shield students from ideas they subjectively decide are hateful or offensive or injurious, or ones they just don't like. This patronizing practice assumes students are incapable of grappling with, learning from, or responding to ideas with which they disagree."
But DeVos said it's not her intent to use her office to fix that.
"Solutions won't come from new laws from Washington, D.C., or from a speech police at the U.S. Department of Education," she said. Instead, the answer is more and better civics education, and more robust public discourse. She urged the students to first "develop an interior life. Be still, pray, reflect, review, contemplate."
"It's easy to be nasty hiding behind screens and Twitter handles. It's not so easy when we are face to face," said DeVos, whose late father-in-law, Richard M. DeVos Sr., a co-founder of Amway, was a National Constitution Center trustee and major donor.
DeVos, who last month drew scrutiny amid reports her department was weighing a plan to let school districts use federal funds to arm teachers, did not take reporters' questions at Monday's event. But she fielded some tough queries from students.
Kaileigh Murphy, a senior studying education and history at the College of New Jersey, said that the Trump administration "is supportive of free speech, but only if it fits their personal agenda," and asked DeVos to clarify her Twitter comments.
DeVos said she believed Twitter was useful in some ways, but that "the distance — the separation that occurs" over social media is generally not helpful.
Later, Murphy said she was unsatisfied with the education secretary's answers or most of her speech, she said.
Trump, Murphy said, "is the prime example of hiding behind Twitter handles." She also took issue with DeVos' repeated references to prayer to fix societal ills.
"I don't really think prayers are the answer," Murphy said.
Sierra Collins, a senior at Constitution High School in Center City, was direct with DeVos.
"Why do you believe you're qualified to serve as education secretary with no experience in the public school system?" asked Collins, 17.