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Questions abound after Trump threatens to strip funding from colleges that don’t support free speech

President Trump hugs an American flag at the Conservative Political Action Conference annual meeting over the weekend. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Conservative activists cheered loudly and applauded on Saturday when President Trump announced that he would make federal funding for universities contingent on support for free speech.

But some First Amendment experts and university officials greeted the announcement that Trump would impose an executive order with questions: Was this political rhetoric, or an imminent policy change? What would qualify as a commitment to free speech, and who would get to decide? And what money was in question — research funding or tuition grants for low-income students?

Trump told the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor in Maryland that his executive order would “require colleges to support free speech if they want federal research” money.

Trump did not give specifics, but told the CPAC crowd he planned to sign the order “very soon.”

Trump promises executive order that could strip colleges of funding if they don’t ‘support free speech’

A White House official said Monday there were no further announcements at this time, referring questions back to the president’s earlier remarks.

Samuel J. Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has surveyed thousands of students, faculty and administrators about their views, said he cheered when he saw the alert on his phone.

“The need is very real” to find ways to encourage more diversity of ideas on campuses, he said. People are so afraid of offending someone that honest, open discourse is disappearing, he said, and he’s grateful Trump put it on the national agenda. But he worries that government intervention is not a good way to improve the situation. “Having the government make the call — is this free speech good enough or not good enough? — and if not good enough, billions of dollars are at risk, innovation is at risk.” That is a scary idea, he said.

Two years ago, Trump responded to controversy over a divisive speaker at the University of California at Berkeley with a similar-sounding threat, tweeting, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

Trump lashes back at Berkeley after violent protests block speech by Milo Yiannopoulos

At the time, UC-Berkeley police had just canceled a talk by the provocative writer Milo Yiannopoulos and locked down the campus to regain control amid intense protests, with masked activists smashing windows and setting fires.

UC-Berkeley was again a target this year. Trump stood on stage at CPAC with a conservative activist who was attacked while “tabling” — sharing information — in Berkeley’s public plaza, which has long been a national symbol of free speech. Video of the punch went viral, reinforcing the stereotype that conservative thought is viewed with hostility on the state flagship campus.

Neither the attacker — who has since been arrested — nor the victim, Hayden Williams, was a student or employee of the university.

Police have arrested the man they say punched a conservative activist at UC Berkeley

Trump urged Williams to sue the school.

Berkeley officials issued a lengthy statement, including a timeline of events and university responses to the incident to underscore what they describe as a prompt response by campus police, who investigated the attack, and university officials, who condemned the incident.

“In the last year alone, this University spent more than $4 million to ensure that our conservative students could safely and successfully hold events on campus and invite speakers of their choice to these events,” university officials wrote, including a list of prominent conservative speakers who had been hosted by campus groups without protest or incident. The school’s chancellor, Carol Christ, had told the campus, “Our commitment to freedom of expression and belief is unwavering.”

Leaders of several other public research universities and the interest group that represents them said Trump’s proposed action is unwarranted.

“An executive order is unnecessary as public research universities are already bound by the First Amendment, which they deeply respect and honor,” Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said in a written statement. “It is core to their academic mission.”

The University of Chicago’s president, Robert J. Zimmer, warned in a message to campus on Monday that federal intervention would be a grave error, allowing the government -— with all its power — to help define the nature of campus discussion and creating a bureaucracy to enforce its position.

U.S. presidents have long affirmed the importance of freedom of speech to American democracy, said Jonathan Friedman, campus free speech project director for PEN America, which advocates for freedom of expression. “But colleges are not the enemy of free speech that this administration has sometimes made them out to be,” Friedman said Monday in a statement. “And policies designed to improve the climate for free speech, if they are not carefully crafted, can have the unintended effect of curtailing it.” He said a thoughtful, nonpartisan effort would likely do more to improve free expression on campus “than an executive order cooked up behind closed doors and doled out as a threat.”

Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor of education, political science and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education who recently wrote a book about free speech on campus, questioned how the administration would determine whether a college is protecting free speech. “Will there be a system to report violations to the government, and if so, who will verify the complaints?” she asked. “Will there be a committee? This is thought-police territory.”

In Canada, she said, a conservative politician recently initiated a similar effort, requiring universities in Ontario to craft free-speech policies or risk losing provincial funding. “The overall background is similar, this sense that higher education is too liberal or too left-leaning,” Ben-Porath said.

Some schools in Ontario developed policies to strengthen free-speech protections, she said, but most issued statements reaffirming their commitment to the principle. Thus far, she said, “it has had a very limited effect.”

Some organizations interested in First Amendment issues said they were waiting to hear details of the president’s executive order. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which advocates for freedom of speech on campus, said in a written statement: “While we are glad that this important national issue has the President’s attention, we do not currently have any more information on the details of the executive order. We are looking forward to learning more about this initiative in the coming days.”

“I worry that this is a blunt tool against … the wrong question,” Ben-Porath said. Universities are aware that some students, especially conservatives, feel they are in such a minority they can’t express their opinions on campus, she said. “What is some work that we can do to make sure that they are heard, to make sure people consider diverse views?she said. These are good questions.”