President Trump signed an executive order Thursday requiring colleges to ensure free speech or risk losing federal research grants totaling $35 billion annually, as he cited examples of liberals suppressing conservatives’ views on campus.
The president said students are “under siege” for expressing their political views in school.
“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,” Mr. Trump said in the East Room of the White House.
He told an audience of cheering conservative students and activists, “We’re delivering a clear message to the professors and power structures trying to suppress dissent and keep young Americans … from challenging rigid, far-left ideology. If a college or university doesn’t allow you to speak, we will not give them money, it’s very simple.”
The order also directs the Education Department to publish a “college scorecard” on student debt, student loan default rates and loan repayment rates. The department will submit a report to Mr. Trump with policy recommendations aimed at requiring colleges to share the financial risk of student loans, to promote accountability.
The president invited three conservative students to tell their stories at the event, including Ellen Wittman, who as president of a chapter of Students for Life at Miami University in Florida tried to display small crosses representing the unborn in 2017. School officials told her that she would need to post “trigger warnings” around campus in case her display offended others.
“It’s ridiculous that it’s gotten to this point,” Ms. Wittman said. “They should be encouraging free speech, not shutting it down. The only permit we need to speak on campus is the First Amendment.”
Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, said he supports Mr. Trump’s efforts on college accountability and free speech but fears the order could result in Washington bureaucrats enforcing “speech codes” on campuses.
“The U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech,” Mr. Alexander said. “Federal courts define and enforce it. The Department of Justice can weigh in. Conservatives don’t like it when judges try to write laws, and conservatives should not like it when legislators and agencies try to rewrite the Constitution.”
The issue of campus free speech has stirred Mr. Trump’s conservative base. A Gallup/Knight Foundation survey reported in March 2018 that 61 percent of college students say the campus climate prevents people from speaking freely, up from 54 percent in 2016.
Most educators said the president’s action was unnecessary at best and an executive overreach at worst. Association of Public and Land-grant Universities President Peter McPherson called the order “deeply disturbing” and said it could lead to partisan enforcement decisions by political appointees.
“By design, political appointees and agency heads will be making these decisions and we can expect their decisions would be focused more on defending those who share their political positions regardless of which party is in office,” Mr. McPherson said. “Government-assured speech is not free speech. This should concern everyone.”
Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband, who has weighed in on at least one lawsuit against the California state college system over First Amendment rights, said Thursday that free speech on campus “is under threat.”
He pointed to a study by a University of California at Los Angeles professor who found that nearly 30 percent of male students felt it was OK to use violence to “shut down” speakers they didn’t agree with.
Mr. Dreiband made the comments during an event with University of California President Janet Napolitano, who said free speech in higher education “is widely respected and upheld.”
“I think where it gets gray and difficult is when we say, ‘well, speech can’t be harassing or hurtful,’” Ms. Napolitano said. “Well, our vision or your vision of harassing speech may be different from a person who is coming from a different place or a different background. “
The president has pointed to the case of Hayden Williams, a conservative activist who was punched in the face while on a recent recruiting trip to the University of California, Berkeley.
At Wake Forest University, graduate student Tom Condon, a member of Turning Point USA, said he was verbally assaulted and threatened by members of the Young Democratic Socialists of America when he counter-protested at a DACA rally.
“These are bright, deep-thinking, intellectual conservatives, and many of them have to hide their views on campus, hide who they are,” said Charlie Copeland, president and CEO of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an organization devoted to promoting conservative thought and policies on college campuses.
He said the president’s action will raise awareness on campus that suppressing anyone’s political views, right or left, is wrong.
“Having that dialogue on the national level is very important to our students and in some ways liberating for many of them,” Mr. Copeland said in an interview.
But he added that there “may be some snapback” among liberal faculty who penalize students “if you’re outside of their political philosophy.”
“That’s at the classroom level, and that’s going to be hard to track,” he said.
The American Council on Education called the president’s order “unnecessary and unwelcome, 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 council President Ted Mitchell, who urged the Trump administration to consult with “a diverse set of stakeholders” before implementing the order.