The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump signs executive order on free speech on college campuses

President Trump announced March 21 that he would make federal funding for universities contingent on assurances of free speech. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump signed an executive order Thursday protecting freedom of speech on college campuses, surrounded by student activists who have said conservative views are suppressed at universities.

Trump said he was taking “historic action to defend American students and American values that have been under siege.”

The order does not, on its face, make dramatic changes. But it was welcomed by people who say universities are fostering an unbalanced, liberal indoctrination of students — and condemned by those who say freedom of inquiry is a fundamental tenet of higher education, one the government should not be defining.

More than 100 students joined the president in the East Room for the signing, according to a statement from the White House, along with state legislators, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The order directs 12 agencies that make federal grants, in coordination with the Office of Management and Budget, to ensure colleges are complying with the law and their own policies to promote free inquiry and debate.

It does not tie student-aid money to the order.

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

“Schools are already supposed to be following these rules,” a senior administration official said Thursday. “And essentially, each agency already conditions grants, and schools are certifying that they’re following these conditions. And they will just add free speech as one of those conditions.”

Trump told the students that people can have different views, “but they have to let you speak.”

The president declared it the first in a number of steps the administration would take to defend students’ rights. Universities have tried to restrict free thought and impose conformity, he said.

“All of that changes right now,” he said. “We’re dealing with billions and billions and billions of dollars.”

Universities that want taxpayer dollars should promote free speech, not silence it, he said.

Trump’s announcement earlier this month that he would make federal funding for universities contingent on assurances of free speech elicited cheers and applause at the Conservative Political Action Conference meeting. But it also prompted questions, including who would define and judge free speech and what type of federal funding could be withheld — research dollars, student aid or both.

Those following the issue said they were relieved the order does not designate or create an agency to police speech on campus, while acknowledging that the order’s full effect could not be known until it was implemented.

“To the extent that the executive order asks colleges to do what they are either legally required to do — follow the First Amendment on public campuses, or follow their own promises on private campuses — we think that should be uncontroversial,” said Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which advocates for freedom of speech on campus.

“It will come down to how each agency decides to implement it, what the steps are they take to do that,” Shibley said.

His organization and others, he said, will watch to see whether those agencies use clearly established First Amendment principles upheld by law or instead rely on their own interpretations.

Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive officer of PEN America, a human rights organization that advocates for free expression, said the political context of the order was disturbing.

It must be enforced in an ideologically neutral way that upholds the government’s responsibility not to discriminate based on viewpoint, she said, otherwise there is the risk “that an order that purports to uphold the First Amendment ends up violating it.”

Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, called the order “alarming” because it could leave federally funded research vulnerable to political influence.

Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, which represents college and university presidents, said in a statement Thursday that it remains to be seen how those requirements will be expanded.

“No matter how this order is implemented, it is neither needed nor desirable, and could lead to unwanted federal micromanagement of the cutting-edge research that is critical to our nation’s continued vitality and global leadership,” he said.

Spencer Brown, spokesman for the Young America’s Foundation, which advocates for free speech on high school and college campuses, welcomed the order.

He said it will build upon decades of efforts by the group, including a 1983 case that went to the Supreme Court after police arrested two members of the foundation outside the Soviet Embassy in Washington who were protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

More than a dozen student activists from the foundation were invited to the White House for the signing ceremony, Brown said. While suppression of certain viewpoints on campus is a long-running issue, he said, it has become worse in recent years.

“I do think we’ve seen a ratcheting-up of the intensity,” he said, in the way conservative students “are treated as second-class citizens on campus. There has been a huge spike in opposition and attempted blocking of our events since Trump was elected president.”

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, an antiabortion organization that has groups on high school and college campuses in all 50 states, echoed that idea. “Since the election of President Trump, it’s gotten more dangerous on campus,” she said. “Those who advocate for legal abortion feel their backs are against the wall. It’s more tense.”

She said students have told her about other students and professors obstructing their efforts to share their antiabortion views — erasing sidewalk chalk messages, for example, throwing blankets over information tables and pulling crosses out of the ground. “They have had to fight for their First Amendment rights,” Hawkins said. “This is an exciting day for us.”

Trump strongly defended free speech on campus two years ago after police at the University of California at Berkeley canceled a talk by the far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos amid intense protests by masked activists, who set fires and threw stones. Trump tweeted the next morning, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

Many higher-education leaders say freedom of speech is central to their academic mission.

“College and university campuses are leading the way for our society in supporting free speech,” Julie Wollman, president of Widener University in Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “On most campuses that work happens daily and naturally, without fanfare, because our overarching and common mission in American higher education is to broadly educate and prepare students for active participation as engaged citizens in our democracy.”

The tensions that make headlines reflect the commitment to honor and encourage free speech, Wollman said.

Read the full text of the executive order here:


- - - - - - -


By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1. Purpose. The purpose of this order is to enhance the quality of postsecondary education by making it more affordable, more transparent, and more accountable. Institutions of higher education (institutions) should be accountable both for student outcomes and for student life on campus.

In particular, my Administration seeks to promote free and open debate on college and university campuses. Free inquiry is an essential feature of our Nation's democracy, and it promotes learning, scientific discovery, and economic prosperity. We must encourage institutions to appropriately account for this bedrock principle in their administration of student life and to avoid creating environments that stifle competing perspectives, thereby potentially impeding beneficial research and undermining learning.

The financial burden of hig her education on students and their families is also a national problem that needs immediate attention. Over the past 30 years, college tuition and fees have grown at more than twice the rate of the Consumer Price Index. Rising student loan debt, coupled with low repayment rates, threatens the financial health of both individuals and families as well as of Federal student loan programs. In addition, too many programs of study fail to prepare students for success in today’s job market.

The Federal Government can take meaningful steps to address these problems. Selecting an institution and course of study are important decisions for prospective students and significantly affect long-term earnings. Institutions should be transparent about the average earnings and loan repayment rates of former students who received Federal student aid. Additionally, the Federal Government should make this information readily accessible to the public and to prospective students and their families, in particular.

This order will promote greater access to critical information regarding the prices and outcomes of postsecondary education, thereby furthering the goals of the National Council for the American Worker established by Executive Order 13845 of July 19, 2018 (Establishing the President's National Council for the American Worker). Increased information disclosure will help ensure that individuals make educational choices suited to their needs, interests, and circumstances. Access to this information will also increase institutional accountability and encourage institutions to take into account likely future earnings when establishing the cost of their educational programs.

Sec. 2. Policy. It is the policy of the Federal Government to:

(a) encourage institutions to foster environments that promote open, intellectually engaging, and diverse debate, including through compliance with the First Amendment for public institutions and compliance with stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech for private institutions;

(b) help students (including workers seeking additional training) and their families understand, through better data and career counseling, that not all institutions, degrees, or fields of study provide similar returns on their investment, and consider that their educational decisions should account for the opportunity cost of enrolling in a program;

(c) align the incentives of institutions with those of students and taxpayers to ensure that institutions share the financial risk associated with Federal student loan programs;

(d) help borrowers avoid defaulting on their Federal student loans by educating them about risks, repayment obligations, and repayment options; and

(e) supplement efforts by States and institutions by disseminating information to assist students in completing their degrees faster and at lower cost.

Sec. 3. Improving Free Inquiry on Campus. (a) To advance the policy described in subsection 2(a) of this Order, the heads of covered agencies shall, in coordination with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, take appropriate steps, in a manner consistent with applicable law, including the First Amendment, to ensure institutions that receive Federal research or education grants promote free inquiry, including through compliance with all applicable Federal laws, regulations, and policies.

(b) “Covered agencies” for purposes of this section are the Departments of Defense, the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Transportation, Energy, and Education; the Environmental Protection Agency; the National Science Foundation; and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

(c) “Federal research or education grants” for purposes of this section include all funding provided by a covered agency directly to an institution but do not include funding associated with Federal student aid programs that cover tuition, fees, or stipends.

Sec. 4. Improving Transparency and Accountability on Campus. (a) To advance the policy described in subsections 2(b)-(e) of this order, the Secretary of Education (Secretary) shall, to the extent consistent with applicable law:

(i) make available, by January 1, 2020, through the Office of Federal Student Aid, a secure and confidential website and mobile application that informs Federal student loan borrowers of how much they owe, how much their monthly payment will be when they enter repayment, available repayment options, how long each repayment option will take, and how to enroll in the repayment option that best serves their needs;

(ii) expand and update annually the College Scorecard, or any successor, with the following program-level data for each certificate, degree, graduate, and professional program, for former students who received Federal student aid:

(A) estimated median earnings;

(B) median Stafford loan debt;

(C) median Graduate PLUS loan debt (if applicable);

(D) median Parent PLUS loan debt; and

(E) student loan default rate and repayment rate; and

(iii) expand and update annually the College Scorecard, or any successor, with the following institution-level data, providing the aggregate for all certificate, degree, graduate, and professional programs, for former students who received Federal student aid:

(A) student loan default rate and repayment rate;

(B) Graduate PLUS default rate and repayment rate; and

(C) Parent PLUS default rate and repayment rate.

(b) For the purpose of implementing subsection (a)(ii) of this section, the Secretary of the Treasury shall, upon the request of the Secretary, provide in a timely manner appropriate statistical studies and compilations regarding program-level earnings, consistent with section 6108(b) of title 26, United States Code, other applicable laws, and available data regarding programs attended by former students who received Federal student aid.

Sec. 5. Reporting Requirements. (a) By January 1, 2020, the Secretary, in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, shall submit to the President, through the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, a report identifying and analyzing policy options for sharing the risk associated with Federal student loan debt among the Federal Government, institutions, and other entities.

(b) By January 1, 2020, the Secretary, in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury, shall submit to the President, through the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, policy recommendations for reforming the collections process for Federal student loans in default.

(c) Beginning July 1, 2019, the Secretary shall provide an annual update on the Secretary's progress in implementing the policies set forth in subsections 2(b)-(e) of this order to the National Council for the American Worker at meetings of the Council.

(d) Within 1 year of the date of this order, the Secretary shall compile information about successful State and institutional efforts to promote students' timely and affordable completion of a postsecondary program of study. Based on that information, the Secretary shall publish a compilation of research results that addresses:

(i) how some States and institutions have better facilitated successful transfer of credits and degree completion by transfer students;

(ii) how States and institutions can increase access to dual enrollment programs; and

(iii) other strategies for increasing student success, especially among students at high risk of not completing a postsecondary program of study.

Sec. 6. General Provisions. (a) Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:

(i) the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof; or

(ii) the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.

(b) This order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.

(c) This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.