President Donald Trump signed an executive order to protect “free speech” on college campuses Thursday afternoon. The order will deny federal research grants to colleges and universities on the basis of whether their policies adequately support “free speech.”
Officials told the Associated Press that the order’s implementation will be determined in the coming months.
Trump proposed the idea in a two-hour speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference on March 2, during which he said colleges and universities would have to allow people to speak “if they want our dollars.”
Public universities are already required to uphold the First Amendment, while private universities have their own rights, leading some progressives to wonder how the Trump administration’s order will impact existing policies around speech on campuses.
Free speech on college campuses has become a common talking point among conservative and far-right actors as students protesting white supremacists have successfully shut down alt-right speakers, including Richard Spencer—a white nationalist who was scheduled to speak at the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017, and Milo Yiannopoulos.
Yiannopoulos’s speaking event at the University of California, Berkeley in 2017 was met with protests after the far-right provocateur was expected to publicly out undocumented students by name during the event. Later that same year, Spencer was met with student and community protests during a speech at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where three of his supporters were arrested after one shot a gun at a crowd of people protesting the event.
Both Spencer and Yiannopoulos eventually canceled their speaking tours.
The student-led protests to de-platform these far-right speakers have been deemed a “free speech” crisis by conservatives who say they face “discrimination, harassment, or worse if they dare speak up on campus.”
Data analysis from Georgetown’s Free Speech Project found little evidence to support such a crisis on college campuses. The project’s director Sanford Ungar wrote that multiple cases of conservative speakers being interrupted or disinvited, involved the same few speakers: Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, Charles Murray, and Ann Coulter. “In some instances, they seem to invite, and delight in, disruption,” Ungar wrote.
Even so, President Trump in his speech at CPAC highlighted the case of far-right activist Hayden Williams, who was punched in the face at Berkeley while recruiting for the conservative group Turning Points USA. “He took a hard punch in the face for all of us,” Trump said.
The president has cited incidents at Berkeley more than once as reason to cut federal funding from universities over alleged free speech concerns.
However, most college students agreed by a narrow margin that while protecting speech is important to democracy, diversity and inclusion were more important, a Gallup-Knight survey conducted last year found.