WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump saluted conservative students and activists for standing up to “political intimidation,” censorship and coercion on American campuses as he signed an executive order to promote free speech in academia in the East Room Thursday.
“Universities that want taxpayer dollars should promote free speech, not silence free speech,” Trump told the enthusiastic crowd.
In signing the order, dubbed “Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency and Accountability at Colleges and Universities,” Trump was making good on a promise made at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month to require colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research dollars.
The free-speech group PEN America responded in a statement, “There is nothing wrong with the White House seeking to promote open debate on campus, or stressing that institutions that receive federal research funds comply with the law and promote freedom of thought.”
But the statement also criticized the administration, adding: “Whether it is in response to protesters at a campaign rally, NFL or college football players taking a knee on the field, or journalists asking tough questions, the administration has resorted to taunts and intimidation in order to suppress the speech of those with whom it disagrees.”
Berkeley College Republicans president Matthias Ronnau, who attended the event, told the Review-Journal, “I’m very excited and I look forward to universities working to better protect free speech.”
The order directs 12 grant-making agencies to “promote free inquiry,” a senior administration official told reporters earlier in the day. “The order does not apply to student aid programs that cover tuition, fees, or stipends. The administration believes public colleges and universities should fulfill their obligation to uphold the First Amendment, and private schools should comply with their states’ institutional policies regarding free inquiry.”
“To the extent that today’s executive order asks colleges and universities to meet their existing legal obligations, it should be uncontroversial,” the academic freedom group FIRE said in a statement. The group also said it will watch closely for “unintended consequences that threaten free expression and academic freedom.”
The order also calls for transparency regarding the average earnings and loan repayment rates of institutions’ graduates.