Thursday afternoon, President Donald Trump signed an executive order advising colleges to respect students’ First Amendment right to free expression or risk losing federal funding.
The executive order is a fulfilled promise; Trump suggested, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held earlier this month, that he planned to mandate that colleges and universities respect students’ right to free speech, particularly as it relates to accepting conservative speakers on campus. Today’s order reflects that intent.
“We’re here to take historic action to defend American students and American values,” Trump said, according to Fox News. “They’ve been under siege.”
“Under the guise of speech codes, safe spaces and trigger warnings, these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shut down the voices of great young Americans like those here today,” he added.
Trump invited representatives of conservative student groups and conservative college groups to the White House to witness the signing. Present among them was Hayden Williams, a conservative activist who was punched in the face by another student at the University of California Berkeley for daring to question that student’s leftist beliefs.
The incident was caught on camera, and Williams’ attacker was quickly identified.
The order applies to grant-making agencies rather than to colleges themselves. Fox News reports that ” the order directs 12 grant-making agencies to use their authority in coordination with the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to ensure institutions that receive federal research or education grants promote free speech and free inquiry. White House officials have said it will apply to more than $35 billion in grants,” per a senior White House official.
If universities seek federal funding from any of the 12 agencies, they must prove that they have a serious commitment to honoring the edicts of the First Amendment as it applies to the students who spend time on their respective campuses.
Colleges and universities have banned talks and presentations by controverisal (often conservative) speakers under the guise of protecting student safety. In other cases, they’ve imposed speech codes, created “free speech zones,” dictated the content of speeches, and issued trigger warnings and general warnings to students who might react badly to new ideas (or, at least, ideas different from their own).
Trump’s executive order is supposed to “encourage” schools to pursue fewer restrictions and “safety measures,” but as U.S. News and World Report points out, it’s not clear exactly how the Trump Administration will enforce the contents of the executive order.
Most likely, enforcing the grant restrictions will fall to the Department of Education, which, under Secretary Betsy DeVos, has become more of a hands-off Cabinet agency, so the executive order may be more of a “road map” for colleges and universities looking to stay on the right side of the Trump Administration.
At least one free speech organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is expressing cautious optimism about the project.
In a statement released late Thursday afternoon, FIRE told supporters that while it is concerned that the government is skating close to defining the parameters of the First Amendment — something no conservative is particularly enthusiastic about — “to the extent that today’s executive order asks colleges and universities to meet their existing legal obligations, it should be uncontroversial. FIRE will watch closely to see if today’s action furthers the meaningful, lasting policy changes that FIRE has secured over two decades — or results in unintended consequences that threaten free expression and academic freedom.”