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President Donald Trump on Thursday afternoon signed his much-hyped executive order on campus free speech — which he deemed a “historic action to defend American students and American values” that have “been under siege” on campuses.
“Under the guise of speech codes and safe spaces and trigger warnings, these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shutdown the voices of great young Americans,” Trump said Thursday before signing the order.
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“All of that changes starting right now.”
The order, however, essentially reinforces what schools are already supposed to be doing by formally requiring colleges to agree to promote free inquiry in order to get billions of dollars in federal research funding.
“While many schools — or all schools — are frankly supposed to follow this currently, it will ensure that grant dollars are associated through the grant-making process, and schools will have to certify that they’re following this condition,” a senior administration official said earlier Thursday.
Still the move, and the president’s rhetoric surrounding it, raised alarms for some civil liberties groups and conservatives — including at least one Republican lawmaker — who expressed concerns about federal overreach.
“I don’t want to see Congress or the president or the department of anything creating speech codes to define what you can say on campus,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Senate HELP Committee, said in a statement. “The U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech. 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.”
The order directs 12 federal agencies that fund university research to add language to existing agreements that colleges have to sign to get the money. Public universities will have to vow to uphold the First Amendment — something they already must do — and private universities will have to promise to uphold their own “stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech,” essentially setting their own rules.
It will be up to the agencies to enforce the agreements, as they already do.
“Today we’re delivering a clear message to the professors and power structures trying to suppress dissent and keep young Americans — and all Americans, not just young Americans … from challenging rigid, far-left ideology,” Trump said. “If the university doesn’t allow you to speak, we will not give them money — it’s very simple.”
The president vowed it was “the first in a series of steps we will take to defend students’ rights.”
The executive order is “plainly unnecessary,” the president of a group of public universities said.
“Public universities are already bound by the First Amendment and work each day to defend and honor it,” Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said. “As institutions of higher learning, public universities are constantly working to identify new ways to educate students on the importance of free expression, provide venues for free speech, and advance our world through free academic inquiry.
“No executive order will change that,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union echoed that sentiment.
“This executive order doesn’t do much with regard to free speech,” ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Kate Ruane said in a statement. “Instead, it tells public universities to abide by the First Amendment, as they are already required to do, and private universities to abide by their existing policies.”
Some conservatives, however, believe haven’t done that, and are regularly stifling speech — especially conservative speech — by banning speakers, creating speech zones and pushing trigger warnings.
“College campuses are ground zero in the campaign by the liberal left to shut down conservative dissent,” said Chandler Thornton, chairman of the College Republican National Committee. “President Trump’s executive order is critically needed because college and university bureaucrats have absolutely failed to protect free speech on campus.”
Trump previously threatened to withdraw federal funding to the University of California, Berkeley, after riots on campus led it to cancel an event at which far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak. At Trump’s CPAC speech where he first mentioned the executive order, the president brought to the stage Hayden Williams, a conservative activist who was punched in the face while recruiting on the Berkeley campus for the conservative youth group Turning Point USA.
The Justice Department under the Trump administration, meanwhile, has backed lawsuits against colleges it believes are suppressing speech, including Berkeley.
Donald Trump, Jr., touted the move on Twitter Thursday morning as “A big momentous day!”
“Super excited today that @realDonaldTrump is signing an executive order today to protect free speech rights for ALL students!” he wrote. “Great work by @TPUSA and @charliekirk11 who have been pushing this since the first time I met him years ago.”
Some, however, remained skeptical of federal intrusions into campus speech, especially given the president’s framing of the issue. The conservative Charles Koch Institute pointed to a statement the White House issued in which Trump slammed “oppressive speech codes, censorship, political correctness, and every other attempt by the hard left to stop people from challenging ridiculous and dangerous ideas.”
“We are concerned that wrongly framing censorship as an ideological issue works against efforts to foster open intellectual environments on campus,” Sarah Ruger, director of Free Speech Initiatives at the Koch Institute, said in a statement. “The best policies are those that empower the academy to uphold its core ideals of academic independence and free inquiry.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has sued colleges it believes are stifling speech, said in a statement that the order could result in “unintended consequences that threaten free expression and academic freedom.”
“To the extent that today’s executive order asks colleges and universities to meet their existing legal obligations, it should be uncontroversial,” the group said. “We note that the order does not specify how or by what standard federal agencies will ensure compliance, the order’s most consequential component. FIRE has long opposed federal agency requirements that conflict with well-settled First Amendment jurisprudence. We will continue to do so.”
The American Council on Education, the leading higher education lobbying group, meanwhile, said the order is “unnecessary and unwelcome, a solution in search of a problem.”
“What remains to be seen is the process the administration develops to flesh out these requirements and the extent to which it is willing to consult with the communities most affected — especially research universities,” said Ted Mitchell, the group’s president, in a statement. “No matter how this order is implemented, it is neither needed nor desirable, and could lead to unwanted federal micromanagement of the cutting-edge research that is critical to our nation’s continued vitality and global leadership.”
The order makes some moves beyond free speech, as well.
It directs the Education Department to add program-level data, including information on debt, earnings, repayment and default rates, to the existing College Scorecard. In addition, the order directs the department to publish the performance, by college, of PLUS loans for parents and graduate students. It also orders up a report from the department with recommendations on how the administration can put colleges on the hook for how well their students do after graduation.
“We’re going to make them have an incentive to keep their costs down,” Trump said. “I’ve watched this over a period of time. I figured it out very, very quickly. I just see their numbers go up very rapidly, because they don’t have the burden on them.”
Michael Stratford contributed to this report.