Trump’s new order aims to protect conservative voices on college campuses

His education secretary, Betsy Devos, has warned about the dangers of ‘government muscle’ on issue

President Donald Trump announced an executive order he will sign Thursday afternoon during his two-hour appearance at CPAC 2019 on March 2 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump announced an executive order he will sign Thursday afternoon during his two-hour appearance at CPAC 2019 on March 2 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Posted March 21, 2019 at 9:52am

President Donald Trump will sign an executive order Thursday aimed at protecting conservative voices on public and private college campuses, an issue that energizes his political base as he revs up his re-election campaign.

The order will direct the White House Office of Management and Budget to work with grant-issuing federal agencies to ensure higher learning institutions are adhering to the First Amendment, as well as laws, regulations and policies that are part of existing criteria for receiving federal monies. The EO will add free speech to those criteria.

“Free inquiry” and “transparency” and “free speech” on college campuses “are essential for learning, scientific discovery and economic prosperity,” said a senior administration official who briefed reporters Thursday morning. “The goal of the order is to provide free speech more broadly across college campuses.”

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Public universities will have to show they are adhering to the First Amendment, while private schools will have to show they are living up to their “intended policies” on “open inquiry,” according to the official.

Both public and private schools will have to “certify” that they are following the existing criteria and the new ones for free speech, the official said. But the official was unable to describe in any depth just how the Trump administration will verify those certifications.

Such “implementation details” will be finalized in “a few weeks,” the senior official said, adding the EO will direct the Department of Education to compile a report on risk-sharing for higher education institutions related to student loans.

The issue of conservative activists and students saying they have been silenced on public and college campuses is one that animates Trump’s political base, which he again will need to show up in big numbers in Rust Belt and Upper Midwest states to win a second term. Conservative media regularly covers the matter; Fox News on Thursday morning had a report about a conservative student who says he was denied a seat in his university’s student senate.

The order comes as some leading Republicans, like Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, and members of Trump’s Cabinet, like Education Secretary Betsy Devos, have voiced opposition to the federal government defining free speech.

Devos last year warned about “government muscle” addressing free speech on college campuses, adding: “A solution won’t come from defunding an institution of learning.”

The president first announced his intention to sign such an order during his two-hour March 2 appearance at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington. And he did it with his typical showmanship, turning his podium over to Hayden Williams, a conservative activist who in February was punched at the University of California-Berkeley.

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Right-leaning commentators and organizations say liberal institutions of higher learning have collectively been working to silence conservatives like Williams.

“He took a punch for all of us,” Trump told a banquet hall packed with supporters. “And we could never allow that to happen. And here is, in closing with Hayden, here’s the good news. He’s going to be a wealthy young man.”

The president indicated if universities want to continue receiving federal funds — “and we give it to them by the billions — they’ve got to allow people like Hayden and many other great young people and old people to speak.”

“Free speech. If they don’t, it will be costly. That will be signed soon,” Trump said of the executive order he will sign Thursday afternoon.

As the president described the order that Saturday afternoon, the conservative crowd chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!”