President Donald Trump to sign executive order on college free speech

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump plans to sign an executive order today aimed at ensuring colleges uphold free speech by threatening to withhold billions in research funding. But it’s not entirely clear how the order will work.

A senior administration official offered few details Tuesday in a call with the media. 

What’s clear: Trump is making 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 physical.

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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.

Public universities would be expected to uphold the First Amendment, the senior administration official said, and private universities would be expected to uphold their policies on free inquiry on campus.

When asked how this would be different than the current free speech protections already in place, the administration official said this order would be broader.

“It will be applied consistently with how agencies already condition federal grants. I won’t get into implementation details,” the official said. “But schools are already supposed to be following these rules. Essentially, each agency already conditions grants, and schools are certified after following these conditions, and it will just add free speech as one of those conditions.”

The official declined to offer more details. The Office of Management and Budget will work with the agencies to figure how the program will work over the next few weeks and months, the official said.

The president is expected to sign the executive order at 3:15 p.m. Eastern Time.   

The order will not affect federal student loans or grants, another huge source of federal money that colleges receive, the administration official said.

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

Yet in March 2018, the president told Charlie Kirk, an avowed conservative critic of college campuses, that he believed the free speech crisis to be “overblown.”

In his latest speech touching on the topic, the President said that if universities wanted federal research money, they must allow free speech. In that case, he had 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. 

Many conservatives, including Sen. Alexander Lamar, R-Tenn., and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have said they’re opposed to government involvement as it relates to free speech on college campuses.

And many university leaders feel the same way. Robert J. Zimmer, president of University of Chicago, has been lauded by many for his university’s rigid stance on free speech. He has said he is opposed to federal government interfering with university affairs.

“There are two related features of potential Federal engagement on this issue that would threaten the mission of institutions of higher education,” Zimmer said in a statement. “They would do so by creating the specter of less rather than more free expression, and by deeply chilling the environment for discourse and intellectual challenge.”

Trump’s Justice Department has consistently sounded a warning about the “free speech crisis” on college campuses. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions loved to rail against sensitive parties on college campuses. In one memorable incident, he accused higher education of raising a “generation of sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes.”

The department has also filed statements of interest in cases involving free speech on campuses. 

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