Trump Signs Order Linking College ‘Free Speech’ to Federal Aid

23 March, 2019

U.S. President Donald Trump has approved an order linking "free speech" efforts at colleges and universities in the United States to federal money.

Trump signed the executive order last Thursday at the White House. The measure directs public universities to create and enforce protections for students to express themselves freely.

Under the order, schools have to promise to support the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects free speech rights. But legal experts have noted that education institutions receiving federal money are already required to do this.

Private U.S. universities have more flexibility in limiting speech at their schools. The new executive order requires them to set up their own rules for free speech.

The measure requires colleges to support a right protected under the constitution in order to receive federal research and educational money. U.S. colleges and universities receive billions of dollars in federal money each year, including more than $30 billion for research.

"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 said during a signing ceremony. "These universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shut down the voices of great young Americans."

Middlebury College students turn their backs to controversial speaker Charles Murray, unseen, during his talk at the campus in 2017.
Middlebury College students turn their backs to controversial speaker Charles Murray, unseen, during his talk at the campus in 2017.

Trump administration officials have suggested that, in the past, some students have violated the rights of people visiting colleges to speak. The officials claimed that individuals with conservative values have been unfairly targeted.

Trump announced his plans for his ‘free speech' order earlier this month during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. At the event, Trump spoke about the case of activist Hayden Williams. Williams was hit during a visit to the University of California, Berkeley, in February. He went to the university to sign up students for a conservative group.

Enforcement of the executive order will be left to federal agencies that award federal money. White House officials did not announce details about how schools will be monitored and what kinds of violations could lead to a loss in federal aid.

Many colleges had already spoken out against the need for such an order before Trump signed it, and there was more criticism after the signing ceremony.

Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, denied there is a problem with free speech at U.S. colleges and universities. In fact, she said many schools are "ground zero" for the free exchange of ideas.

"We do not need the federal government to mandate what already exists: our longstanding, unequivocal support for freedom of expression," Napolitano said.

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities said in a statement that public schools already fully support free expression. The group added that the president's order "does not - and cannot - add to or subtract from our pre-existing obligations under the Constitution."

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

Some U.S. student groups have called for restrictions on speech that is considered hateful or could incite violence. In a study published last year, a majority of American college students said they valued diversity more than protecting free speech.

The study involved over 3,000 students across the country. They were asked how much they valued diversity and free speech. One question was: "If you had to choose, which do you think is more important?" About 53 percent of the students chose "a diverse and inclusive society" over "protecting free speech rights."

I'm Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from the Associated Press and Reuters. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

flexibility n. willing to change or to try different things

impose v. force someone to accept

conformity n. following rules or traditional ways of doing things

monitor v. watch something carefully and record the results

mandate n. officially require something

unequivocal adj. completely clear and certain

subtract v. take away from something

obligation n. something that must be done because of a law, rule, promise, etc.

diversity n. the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization