President Trump signed an executive order yesterday directing the nation’s colleges and universities to defend free speech on campus or lose federal research funding.
“In America, the very heart of the university’s mission is preparing students for life as citizens in a free society,” the president said March 21 in the East Room of the White House.
“But even as universities have received billions and billions of dollars from taxpayers, many have become increasingly hostile to free speech and to the First Amendment. You see it all the time. You turn on the news and you see things that are horrible.”
Under the guise of “speech codes” and “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. These are great people.
All of that changes starting right now … Taxpayer dollars should not subsidize anti-First Amendment institutions. And that’s exactly what they are: anti-First Amendment. Universities that want taxpayer dollars should promote free speech, not silence free speech.
Addressing college students and recent graduates on the stage beside him who fought for free speech on campus, the president added:
You refused to be silenced by powerful institutions and closed-minded critics, of which there are many. You faced down intimidation, pressure and abuse. You did it because you love your country and you believe in truth, justice, and freedom.
Trump signed the document, titled an Executive Order on Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities, during a ceremony. He described the order as “the first in a series of steps we will take to defend students’ rights” and said it was intended to combat “ideological intolerance on campus.”
The order declares that it is the policy of the federal government to “encourage institutions to foster environments that promote open, intellectually engaging, and diverse debate, including through compliance with the First Amendment for public institutions and compliance with stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech for private institutions[.]”
The order directs the heads of the Departments of Defense, the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Transportation, Energy, and Education; the Environmental Protection Agency; the National Science Foundation; and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, “to ensure institutions that receive Federal research or education grants promote free inquiry, including through compliance with all applicable Federal laws, regulations, and policies.”
The order also, among other things, demands greater transparency in the world of student loans. It directs the Office of Federal Student Aid to develop “a secure and confidential website and mobile application that informs Federal student loan borrowers of how much they owe, how much their monthly payment will be when they enter repayment, available repayment options, how long each repayment option will take, and how to enroll in the repayment option that best serves their needs.”
Trump teased the executive order March 2 during a speech at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
“We reject oppressive speech codes, censorship, political correctness and every other attempt by the hard left to stop people from challenging ridiculous and dangerous ideas. These ideas are dangerous,” he said at the time.
“If they want our dollars, and we give it to them by the billions, they’ve got to allow people like Hayden [Williams] and many other great young people and old people to speak. Free speech. If they don’t, it will be very costly.”
Trump was referring to Hayden Williams, a conservative victim of leftist violence on UC Berkeley campus, who was standing beside him on the CPAC stage.
Since Trump was inaugurated his administration has been using legal resources to insist that institutions of higher learning protect freedom of expression on their campuses.
In September 2017, the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest to support students Chike Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford in their lawsuit against Gwinnett College in Georgia. The college had an oppressive policy that prevented the communication of religious messages and the distribution of religious material on campus – even in the campus' so-called free speech zones.
“A national recommitment to free speech on campus and to ensuring First Amendment rights is long overdue,” then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at the time. “Which is why, starting today, the Department of Justice will do its part in this struggle. We will enforce federal law, defend free speech, and protect students’ free expression.
When Kevin Shaw, a student at Pierce College in Los Angeles, was informed he would only be permitted to distribute Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution in a limited free speech zone on campus, he filed a lawsuit. The Justice Department filed a statement of interest in support of Pierce in late 2017. The case was settled the following year. The college agreed to expand the free speech zone.
In December 2018, UC Berkeley agreed to compensate Young America’s Foundation and Berkeley College Republicans for trampling the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of conservative speakers and students on its campus. The Trump administration sided with campus conservatives against the school. The Department of Justice filed a statement of interest on behalf of the two groups. The department “will not stand by idly while public universities violate students’ constitutional rights,” Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand said at the time.
Will President Trump’s new executive order improve the situation on the nation’s college and university campuses?
It can’t hurt.