Trump signs executive order on free speech at college campuses

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At the signing, President Donald Trump said the executive order was just the first in a “series of steps” the administration would take to defend the free speech of students. He didn’t say what those future steps would be. | AP Photo

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday aimed at ensuring colleges uphold free speech by threatening to withhold billions in research funding. It’s not entirely clear how the order will work.

Trump issued the order in response to concerns from conservatives, including those in his voting base, that college campuses have become too liberal. Colleges and their faculty have been leery of conservative speakers and have unfairly labeled some of their ideas as bigoted, conservatives say. Protests surrounding conservative speakers on campus have sometimes turned violent.

“My administration seeks to promote free and open debate on college and university campuses,” the executive order reads. “Free inquiry is an essential feature of our nation’s democracy.”

At the signing, Trump said the executive order was just the first in a “series of steps” the administration would take to defend the free speech of students. He didn’t say what those future steps would be.

He was joined on stage by college students, who he said “stood up to the forces of political indoctrination,” because they loved their country.

“Now you have a president that is fighting for you,” he said. “I am with you all the way. “Universities that want taxpayer dollars should promote free speech, not silence free speech.”

How much money is at stake?

The president’s remarks didn’t offer more clarity about how the program would work, but he did threaten to pull “billions and billions” of federal research funding from universities if they didn’t comply with the concept of free speech.

“All of that money is now at stake,” he said. “That’s a lot of money.”

But is it? The order doesn’t make clear, and neither did Trump’s comments, what criteria would bar a university from getting federal money — and how many colleges risk violating those criteria.

The executive order would direct 12 federal agencies that give money to colleges via grants to build in conditions that direct universities to uphold free speech on their campuses. Those agencies include the Departments of Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation.

The order doesn’t make clear how it differs from the protections already demanded of public universities by the First Amendment.

A senior administration official who briefed reporters on the order Thursday morning did not offer more details about how the order would work. Rather, the official said the Office of Management and Budget would work with the agencies to figure how the program will work over the next few weeks and months.

The free-speech order will not affect federal student loans or grants, another huge source of federal money that colleges receive.

Education Sec. Betsy DeVos, who attended the signing, issued a statement Thursday saying the department would comply with accountability portions of the order. Students, she said, “should be empowered to pursue truth through the free exchange of all ideas, especially ideas with which they may not agree.”

Punches, watch lists and protests on campus

Trump has offered contradictory messages on free speech on college campuses. He threatened to pull federal money from the University of California-Berkeley in February 2017 after a protest turned violent over a scheduled speaker.

Yet in March 2018, the president told Charlie Kirk, a conservative critic of college campuses, that he believed the free-speech crisis to be “overblown.” Kirk supports the executive order signed Thursday.

But this month, in his latest speech touching on the topic, the president said that if universities wanted federal research money, they must allow free speech. He brought up Hayden Williams, a conservative activist who was punched at UC-Berkeley this month.

“If they want our dollars, and we give it to them by the billions, they’ve got to allow people like Hayden … to speak,” Trump said.

Some conservative speakers have had high-profile battles with colleges.

Ben Shapiro, a conservative host of a popular podcast, regularly tours college campuses. He is often protested, and he and his fans have complained of campus censorship.

So does Kirk. His organization even started “The Professor Watchlist,” with the stated goal: “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Many of the students involved in recent free-speech spats have been members of Kirk’s group, Turning Point.

And when he was attorney general, Jeff Sessions accused higher-education institutions of raising a “generation of sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes.”

The Justice Department has filed statements of interest in cases involving free speech on campuses.

What about the First Amendment?

At least one conservative lawmaker pushed back against the order. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, said Thursday that he didn’t see a need for Congress or the federal government to get involved in free speech on campuses.

“The U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech,” Alexander said in a statement. “Federal courts define and enforce it. The Department of Justice can weigh in. Conservatives don’t like it when judges try to write laws, and conservatives should not like it when legislators and agencies try to rewrite the Constitution.”

University advocacy groups almost uniformly decried the executive order and said it was unnecessary. That’s to be expected, as universities consider free speech and academic freedom among their core values.

Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, said he was opposed to federal government interfering with university affairs. His concern: The mere threat of federal involvement could prevent people from exercising their free-speech rights.

“Any action by the Executive Branch that interferes with the ability of higher education institutions to address this problem themselves is misguided and in fact sets a very problematic precedent,” Zimmer said in a statement following Trump’s announcement to sign an executive order.


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