Trump Ties Federal Funds for Colleges to Free-Speech Pledge

Addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Md., on March 2, President Donald Trump invites to the podium Hayden Williams, a field representative of the Leadership Institute who was assaulted at Berkeley campus. A White House official said Trump will sign an executive order Thursday requiring colleges to certify that their policies support free speech as a condition of receiving federal research grants. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Taking aim at the angry student mobs that tend these days to derail controversial campus speakers, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday that demands colleges commit to protecting free speech if they want federal funding.

“Taxpayer dollars should not subsidize anti-First Amendment institutions,” Trump said at the White House Thursday afternoon. “And that’s exactly what they are, anti-First Amendment. Universities that want taxpayer dollars should promote free speech, not silence free speech.”

A senior administration official discussed the promised executive order in broad terms this morning, giving little insight to the requirements it will make.

There are 12 federal agencies that award education research grants, and the executive order will leave it to them to decide what schools must do to be in compliance.  

Public universities are already bound by the First Amendment, and the senior administration official said the order would require private schools to follow their own institutional rules as a condition of getting federal dollars.

“Schools are already supposed to be following these rules and essentially each agency already conditions grants – and schools are already certifying that they’re following these conditions and it will just add free speech as one of those conditions,” the official said Thursday.

Trump announced he would be signing an order related to free speech on college campuses earlier this month in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The issue of speech on campus has gained particular interest from conservatives as student protests against controversial speakers, particularly those with conservative viewpoints, have been marked by violence.

In his CPAC speech earlier this month, Trump specifically cited an incident in which a recruiter for Turning Point USA was punched in the face at the University of California, Berkeley.

Speaking from the White House Thursday, Trump said the order is particularly aimed at preventing universities and professors from silencing conservative students who wish to challenge “far-left” ideologies on campus.

“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,” Trump said.

The president was joined on the stage by several students with conservative groups who faced restrictive speech policies on campus. One student with a pro-life group at Miami University in Ohio recounted having been advised to issue a “trigger warning” when she set up wooden crosses on campus representing “the lives of the unborn.”

In addition to the requirements related to grant money, Trump is also expected to demand that the Education Department publish more information about specific degree programs, including costs and student loan obligations for graduates. The agency already publishes information showing the median salary after attending a school, the typical student debt and monthly payment obligations for graduates.

The senior administration official said Thursday implementation details will be finalized in the coming weeks and months.

For the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, such an order should be “uncontroversial,” so long as it sticks to requiring that colleges meet “existing legal obligations.”

“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,” the group said in a statement. “We note that the order does not specify how or by what standard federal agencies will ensure compliance, the order’s most consequential component.”

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