Free Speech for Funds? Trump Teases Executive Order for Colleges

  • Proposal could add provision to federal grant contracts
  • Colleges, professors say government shouldn’t interfere

Colleges and professors reacted warily to a yet-to-be-detailed White House proposal to ban federal research funding to higher education institutions with policies conservatives say limit free speech.

President Donald Trump said he would sign an executive order “very soon” requiring colleges and universities to “support free speech if they want federal research grants.” The announcement Saturday in an address to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference was met with cheers and applause.

Conservatives say free speech on campus is under increasing attack, citing the cancellations of campus appearances by firebrands such as Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos as well as policies restricting faculty and student speech.

Organizations for colleges and professors said while free speech is critical to higher education, federal government involvement would make the issue worse. Nuances in how universities handle controversial incidents could leave administrators in a tight spot, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.

Photo – Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump greets supporters during CPAC 2019 on March 2 in National Harbor, Md. Trump said he planned to sign an executive order linking colleges’ free speech policies to their eligibility for federal research dollars.

“The question here is what happens when free speech runs afoul of a religious mission of an institution?” Hartle said. “What happens when free speech turns violent, do you really want administrations to decide between violence on campus and possibility of losing federal research funding?”

‘Thoughtful Approach’

The American Association of University Professors had similar concerns with potential federal inference.

The group “strongly supports freedom of expression on campus and the rights of faculty and students to invite speakers of their choosing,” said spokeswoman Rachel Larris in a statement. “We oppose, however, any legislation or executive action that interferes with the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities.”

Jonathan Butcher, senior policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, also said the federal government would need to craft policies that didn’t interfere with states’ and schools’ efforts to protect First Amendment rights.

“Any proposal like this, especially at the federal level and involving a sizable amount of money, would need to be structured very carefully and would need to be a thoughtful approach to make sure this does not get in the way of what state lawmakers are doing to protect free speech on campus,” he said.

Link to Contracts?

Trump didn’t elaborate on what such an executive order would look like, but two conservative education experts in the spring of 2018 laid out a plan for an executive action that could serve as a template for the order. The White House could require federal agencies to include free speech provisions in federal grant contracts with schools, Frederick Hess and Grant Addison wrote in National Affairs magazine.

Currently, colleges receiving federal research contracts have to abide by a number of federal policies concerning safety, safe handling of hazardous materials and anti-discrimination practices. Yet they lack anything on free speech, Hess said.

About $40 billion in federal research and development aid went to higher education institutions in fiscal 2017, according to the National Science Foundation.

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at; Jonathan Nicholson at; Robin Meszoly at