White House

Trump signs executive order to protect free speech on college campuses

March 22, 2019
Higher education institutions could lose federal funding if they are found to have stifled students' free expression.

President Donald Trump has signed an executive order directing U.S. colleges to protect free speech on their campuses or risk losing federal research funding.

The Associated Press reports that the order says federal agencies should ensure that any higher education institution receiving research grants agrees to promote free speech and the exchange of ideas, and to follow federal rules guiding free expression.

“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,” Trump says. “These universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shut down the voices of great young Americans.”

The executive order follows complaints from conservatives who say their views have been stifled on campuses across. Joining Trump at the ceremony were students who said they were challenged by their schools while trying to express views against abortion or in support of their faith.

For public universities, that means vowing to uphold the First Amendment, which they’re already required to do. Private universities, which have more flexibility in limiting speech, will be required to commit to their own institutional rules.

Enforcement of the order will be left to federal agencies that award grants, but it's not clear how schools would be monitored and what types of violations would trigger a loss of funding. 

Officials at many colleges have said there was no need for an executive order. Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California, says many schools are “ground zero” for the exchange of ideas.

“We do not need the federal government to mandate what already exists: our longstanding, unequivocal support for freedom of expression,” she says. “This executive order will only muddle policies surrounding free speech, while doing nothing to further the aim of the First Amendment.”

The American Council on Education, which represents more than 1,700 college presidents, called the order “a solution in search of a problem.”

“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,” said says Mitchell, the organization’s president.

The order was supported by conservative groups including Turning Point USA, which has pushed for action on the issue.

Several free speech groups raised concerns about the order, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which took issue with “the partisan nature of the administration’s rollout of this executive order.”

Debate over campus free speech has flared in recent years. Republicans in Congress have called hearings on the issue, but proposed legislation backing campus speech never made it through committee.

Some colleges leaders have said they worry the order could backfire. If a speaking event threatens to turn violent, for example, some say they might have to choose between canceling the event for safety and allowing it to continue to preserve federal funding. Some say it could force religious universities to host speakers with views that conflict with the universities’ values.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

Sponsored Recommendations