Trump Threatens to Deny Funds from Colleges Not Upholding ‘Free Speech’

Academics Concerned with Government Attempts to Regulate Free Speech in New Order


The White House

President Trump’s announcement on March 2 was part of a two-hour speech he delivered to right-wing students, activists and politicians on the last day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) outside Washington, D.C.


UPDATE: Thursday, March 21, 6:12 p.m.

Despite initial speculation that his proposals would not amount to action, President Trump signed an executive order Thursday instructing government agencies to ensure that universities uphold principles of “free inquiry.”

On Thursday and in his announcement earlier this month, Trump claimed the order would protect students with right-leaning views on college campuses, generating fears among experts about federal overreach in matters of speech. But the order seems much less intrusive than was originally anticipated, and remains vague about if and how it will monitor the protection of free speech on college campuses.

The seven-page order, obtained by The Chronicle of Higher Education, is entitled “Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities.” The portion of the order regarding free speech states that its purpose is to encourage “free and open debate” and to avoid stifling competing perspectives on campuses.

“Free inquiry is an essential feature of our Nation’s democracy, and it promotes learning, scientific discovery, and economic prosperity,” it reads. “We must encourage institutions to appropriately account for this bedrock principle in their administration of student life.”

While the order is slightly more specific than Trump’s original proposal, it remains vague about logistics. The only details it provides regarding the order’s implementation is that agencies involved in distributing federal research funds to colleges, along with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, will “take appropriate steps” to ensure that recipient institutions of federal research funds “promote free inquiry.” It also clarifies that the order will apply to federal research grants and certain education grants, but will not apply to federal financial aid used for student tuition.

An unnamed senior administration official told Politico Thursday that the order just reinstates what colleges are already supposed to do.

“While many schools — or all schools — are frankly supposed to follow this currently, it will ensure that grant dollars are associated through the grant-making process, and schools will have to certify that they’re following this condition,” they said.

Trump described the order as “a clear message to the professors and power structures trying to suppress dissent and keep young Americans — and all Americans, not just young Americans … from challenging rigid, far-left ideology.

“If the university doesn’t allow you to speak, we will not give them money — it’s very simple,” Trump said.

The other part of the order addresses university transparency with students and their families, and seeks to make information about alumni’s average earnings and loan repayment rates available to the public through College Scorecard so that prospective students can make more informed decisions about where they will attend. It also directs the Education Department to create a report examining policy options for risk sharing on student-loan debt.

In response to Thursday’s news, Vice President of Communications Bill Burger did not comment on the specifics of the order but reaffirmed the college’s commitment to free speech.

“Middlebury, as always, is committed to fostering a robust and inclusive public sphere in which diverse points of view can be heard, and where members of our community can participate fully,” he said.


March 14, 2019

Middlebury and other private universities could be targeted by an executive order that President Donald J. Trump proposed earlier this month, which would withhold federal funding from any institutions that do not uphold “free speech.” 

The proposal serves as a response to longstanding complaints on the right that students at liberal universities are vilifying and stifling conservative viewpoints. But university administrators and educators around the country fear the ramifications of an attempt by the president to regulate campus speech.

In his address on the last day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) a four-day gathering of prominent right-wing thinkers, politicians and students in National Harbor, Md., the president avoided specifics but announced that he would sign the order “very soon.” The crowd responded with uproarious applause and chants of “USA! USA!” 

Trump was joined onstage by Hayden Williams, a 26-year-old conservative activist who was punched last month while recruiting for a conservative organization and holding a pro-Trump sign at the University of California, Berkeley. 

If these socialist progressives had their way, they would put our Constitution through the paper shredder in a heartbeat.”

— Hayden Williams

“There are so many conservative students around the country who are facing discrimination, harassment and worse if they dare to speak up on campus,” Williams said. “If these socialist progressives had their way, they would put our Constitution through the paper shredder in a heartbeat.”

Trump’s announcement comes two years after the Charles Murray protests at Middlebury, which conservative critics lampooned as an example of suppression of free speech and right-wing views. That same year, students at Claremont McKenna College, a private liberal arts school in California, blocked the door of an auditorium during a conservative writer’s speech. Students involved in both protests were disciplined in the aftermath.

Although Trump named neither college in his speech, both schools have figured into his administration’s recent crusade against suppression of right-wing views on college campuses. In the last two years, congressional Republicans held multiple hearings on campus free speech, and in recent months the Justice Department has filed statements in support of students who have sued their universities for violating their speech rights. Last March, the White House held a panel called “Crisis on College Campus” that identified suppression of free speech as one of the two gravest college dilemmas, alongside opioid addiction. One of the panelists referenced Middlebury as an example of protests turned violent.

Now, Trump’s order seeks to link its defense of free speech with the federal dollars that private colleges collect from the government for research projects. Middlebury received $4,987,440 in federally sponsored research funds in the 2018 fiscal year, more than $3 million of which went to the Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Even more may be at stake for the private research universities which receive billions annually, like John Hopkins University in Maryland, which led all universities with $2.6 billion spent on research during the 2017 Fiscal Year.

Higher Ed Braces Itself

In an email to The Campus, President Laurie L. Patton expressed opposition to Trump’s proposal, saying it “raises many legal and policy questions and would be deeply problematic for the country’s 4,000 institutions of higher education.

“Middlebury believes freedom of expression is essential in higher education and that it allows people who have less power in society to have an equal voice in the public square,” Patton wrote. “While I think the federal government could do many things to help higher education in this country, saddling colleges and universities with an obligation this vague, easily abused, and impossible to administer is not among them.”

Middlebury believes freedom of expression is essential in higher education and that it allows people who have less power in society to have an equal voice in the public square.”

— President Laurie L. Patton

Higher education experts and administrators appear united in their opposition to the proposal. Even those who have staunchly encouraged universities to protect free speech on their campuses, like University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer, have vocalized concerns about the motion.

Middlebury Professor of Political Science Murray Dry, who studies constitutional law and freedom of speech, thinks Trump should reconsider his statement and leave the decision making to the schools in question.

“The colleges and universities, such as Berkeley and Middlebury, are well aware of the problems and have taken steps to assure freedom of speech and to maintain security,” he said.

President Laurie L. Patton said Trump’s proposal “raises many legal and policy questions and would be deeply problematic for the country’s 4,000 institutions of higher education.”

Private universities already comply with certain requirements to receive federal funding, such as ethical guidelines on research involving human subjects, but have typically enjoyed more leeway on matters of speech. Public universities, on the other hand, must follow certain rules regarding speech set forth by the government. For example, they must apply the same rules about inviting guest speakers to all student organizations, regardless of content, unless it can be proven that a speaker may incite or produce violence.

Trump’s order would most likely hold private universities to similar standards. What this means exactly is unclear, given the ambiguity of his speech. For now, experts can only speculate.

Dry and Matthew Dickinson, also a Political Science professor, both think that if it were implemented, the order would be overseen and implemented by the Department of Education, which would develop rules and procedures for holding universities accountable. But Dickinson wondered if the order will even get that far, suggesting it may be on shaky legal footing.

“It’s not clear to me that (the president) does have the authority to define free speech via an executive order,” Dickinson said. “If he does, and asks his administration to enforce it via withholding of funds, it almost certainly will be litigated in the courts.”

Deciding what is and what is not free speech historically has fallen outside the president’s purview. The courts usually set regulations on speech, and have previously upheld laws restricting what they deemed harmful or violent speech on campuses. Usually, the executive branch has only been involved in such matters during times of war to limit speech posing a “clear and present” danger to society.

In any case, the order has the potential to affect Middlebury and its peers negatively, Dickinson fears.

Historically, whenever people in positions of authority try to regulate speech, they typically do so in ways that disproportionately affect politically marginalized groups.”

— Matthew Dickinson

“Historically, whenever people in positions of authority try to regulate speech, they typically do so in ways that disproportionately affect politically marginalized groups,” he said. “We saw this in the fallout from the Charles Murray protest. The college reacted by clarifying their protest policies. Without passing judgment on the college’s effort, I will say that it is the predictable reaction by those in authority to the damage inflicted on free speech by that incident.

“I would worry that in their effort to protect free speech, the Trump administration may inadvertently weaken protections that are so vital if a liberal arts college is to engage in the free and unfettered exchange of ideas,” he added. “ It is far better, I think, to err on the side of protecting speech from regulation than to rely on the government to define it for us.”

Contradictions & Ambiguities

Others see the proposal as largely symbolic. Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center at the nonprofit Freedom Forum, told The Campus that she supports the idea of conservative and controversial figures speaking at universities, but sees Trump’s attempt to meddle in the affairs of private universities as an overreach.

Nott finds the proposal strange for a number of reasons. For one, the incident at UC Berkeley, which seemed to precipitate the announcement, involved two adults who were not affiliated with the university in question, which makes Nott wonder where the administration will draw the line.

“Would that mean that anyone who does anything on the university is held accountable?” Nott said. “At what point does the free speech penalty kick in?”

In his speech, Trump told Williams he should sue UC Berkeley for the incident. The public university was already the target of a 2018 lawsuit that alleged it discriminated against conservative speakers, which it settled. Part of the settlement required the school to adopt policies that would make it harder for students to shout down conservative speakers.

Nott also noted that sometimes, government efforts like this one end up injuring the very doctrines they aim to protect. Most recently, states with Republican-led legislatures, including Arizona, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Georgia, have passed laws that would require universities to punish students for protesting on public college and university campuses, and other states are following suit.

But Nott argued that these laws are self-defeating because they they limit another manifestation of freedom of speech — the right to protest. 

“I’m in support of speakers coming to campus, regardless of what their political stripe is or if they’re offensive,” Nott said. “But protest is also a First Amendment right. You can’t really pick and choose what you want.”