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Donald Trump signs executive order promoting free speech on college campus

March 21, 2019 GMT

Citing examples of liberals suppressing conservatives’ views on college campuses, President Trump signed an executive order Thursday requiring schools to ensure free speech or risk losing federal research grants totaling $35 billion annually.

The president said students are “under siege” for expressing their political views on campus.

“Under the guise of speech codes and ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings,’ these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shut down the voices of great young Americans,” Mr. Trump said in the East Room of the White House.

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He told an audience of cheering conservative students and activists, “If a college or university doesn’t allow you to speak, we will not give them money, it’s very simple.”

The order also directs the Education Department to publish a “college scorecard” on student debt, student loan default rates and loan repayment rates. And the department will submit a report to Mr. Trump with policy recommendations aimed at requiring colleges to share the financial risk of student loans, to promote accountability.

The president invited three conservative students to tell their stories at the event.

Ellen Wittman was president of a chapter of Students for Life at Miami University in Florida in 2017 when she tried to display small crosses representing the unborn. School officials told her that she would need to post “trigger warnings” around campus in case her display offended others.

“It’s ridiculous that it’s gotten to this point,” Ms. Wittman said. “They should be encouraging free speech, not shutting it down. The only permit we need to speak on campus is the First Amendment.”

Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, said he supports Mr. Trump’s efforts on college accountability and free speech, but fears the order could result in Washington bureaucrats enforcing “speech codes” on campuses.

“The U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech,” Mr. Alexander said. “Federal courts define and enforce it. The Department of Justice can weigh in. Conservatives don’t like it when judges try to write laws, and conservatives should not like it when legislators and agencies try to rewrite the Constitution.”

The issue of campus free speech has stirred Mr. Trump’s conservative base. A Gallup/Knight Foundation survey reported in March 2018 that 61 percent of college students say the campus climate prevents people from speaking freely, up from 54 percent in 2016.

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Many educators say the president’s action was unnecessary at best and an executive overreach at worst.

Association of Public and Land-grant Universities President Peter McPherson called the order “deeply disturbing” and said it could lead to partisan enforcement decisions by political appointees.

“By design, political appointees and agency heads will be making these decisions and we can expect their decisions would be focused more on defending those who share their political positions regardless of which party is in office,” Mr. McPherson said. “Government-assured speech is not free speech. This should concern everyone.”

Mr. Trump said it’s important for students to be “challenging rigid, far-left ideology.”

“People who are confident in their beliefs do not censor others,” the president said.

Students for Life in America President Kristan Hawkins, who attended the White House event, said, “No one needs this executive order more than the pro-life generation.”

Examples of intimidation are on the rise. Hayden Williams, a conservative activist, was punched in the face while on a recent recruiting trip to the University of California, Berkeley.

At Wake Forest University, graduate student Tom Condon, a member of Turning Point USA, said he was verbally assaulted and threatened by members of the Young Democratic Socialists of America when he counter-protested at a DACA rally.

At Notre Dame in January, a professor of Africana Studies shouted “white privilege” at a white man who was trying to speak at a panel discussion on “confronting whiteness” on campus. The audience cheered, and the microphone was taken away from the man.

“These are bright, deep-thinking, intellectual conservatives, and many of them have to hide their views on campus, hide who they are,” said Charlie Copeland, president and CEO of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an organization devoted to promoting conservative thought and policies on college campuses.

He said the president’s action will raise awareness on campus that suppressing anyone’s political views, right or left, is wrong.

“Having that dialogue on the national level is very important to our students and in some ways liberating for many of them,” Mr. Copeland said in an interview.

But he added that there “may be some snap-back” among progressive faculty who penalize students “if you’re outside of their political philosophy.”

“That’s at the classroom level, and that’s going to be hard to track,” he said.