Trump signs executive order on free speech on college campuses
President Trump signed an executive order Thursday protecting freedom of speech on college campuses, surrounded by student activists who have said conservative views are suppressed at universities.
Trump said he was taking “historic action to defend American students and American values that have been under siege.”
The order does not, on its face, make dramatic changes. But it was welcomed by people who say universities are fostering an unbalanced, liberal indoctrination of students — and condemned by those who say freedom of inquiry is a fundamental tenet of higher education, one the government should not be defining.
More than 100 students joined the president in the East Room for the signing, according to a statement from the White House, along with state legislators, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The order directs 12 agencies that make federal grants, in coordination with the Office of Management and Budget, to ensure colleges are complying with the law and their own policies to promote free inquiry and debate.
“Schools are already supposed to be following these rules,” a senior administration official said Thursday. “And essentially, each agency already conditions grants, and schools are certifying that they’re following these conditions. And they will just add free speech as one of those conditions.”
Trump told the students that people can have different views, “but they have to let you speak.”
The president declared it the first in a number of steps the administration would take to defend students’ rights. Universities have tried to restrict free thought and impose conformity, he said.
“All of that changes right now,” he said. “We’re dealing with billions and billions and billions of dollars.”
Universities that want taxpayer dollars should promote free speech, not silence it, he said.
Trump’s announcement earlier this month that he would make federal funding for universities contingent on assurances of free speech elicited cheers and applause at the Conservative Political Action Conference meeting. But it also prompted questions, including who would define and judge free speech and what type of federal funding could be withheld — research dollars, student aid or both.
Those following the issue said they were relieved the order does not designate or create an agency to police speech on campus, while acknowledging that the order’s full effect could not be known until it was implemented.
“To the extent that the executive order asks colleges to do what they are either legally required to do — follow the First Amendment on public campuses, or follow their own promises on private campuses — we think that should be uncontroversial,” said Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which advocates for freedom of speech on campus.
“It will come down to how each agency decides to implement it, what the steps are they take to do that,” Shibley said.
His organization and others, he said, will watch to see whether those agencies use clearly established First Amendment principles upheld by law or instead rely on their own interpretations.
Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive officer of PEN America, a human rights organization that advocates for free expression, said the political context of the order was disturbing.
It must be enforced in an ideologically neutral way that upholds the government’s responsibility not to discriminate based on viewpoint, she said, otherwise there is the risk “that an order that purports to uphold the First Amendment ends up violating it.”
Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, called the order “alarming” because it could leave federally funded research vulnerable to political influence.
Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, which represents college and university presidents, said in a statement Thursday that it remains to be seen how those requirements will be expanded.
“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,” he said.
Spencer Brown, spokesman for the Young America’s Foundation, which advocates for free speech on high school and college campuses, welcomed the order.
He said it will build upon decades of efforts by the group, including a 1983 case that went to the Supreme Court after police arrested two members of the foundation outside the Soviet Embassy in Washington who were protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
“I do think we’ve seen a ratcheting-up of the intensity,” he said, in the way conservative students “are treated as second-class citizens on campus. There has been a huge spike in opposition and attempted blocking of our events since Trump was elected president.”
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, an antiabortion organization that has groups on high school and college campuses in all 50 states, echoed that idea. “Since the election of President Trump, it’s gotten more dangerous on campus,” she said. “Those who advocate for legal abortion feel their backs are against the wall. It’s more tense.”
Trump strongly defended free speech on campus two years ago after police at the University of California at Berkeley canceled a talk by the far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos amid intense protests by masked activists, who set fires and threw stones. Trump tweeted the next morning, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?
Many higher-education leaders say freedom of speech is central to their academic mission.
“College and university campuses are leading the way for our society in supporting free speech,” Julie Wollman, president of Widener University in Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “On most campuses that work happens daily and naturally, without fanfare, because our overarching and common mission in American higher education is to broadly educate and prepare students for active participation as engaged citizens in our democracy.”
The tensions that make headlines reflect the commitment to honor and encourage free speech, Wollman said.