Trump’s new executive order on campus free speech is more symbolism than substance

President Donald Trump will sign an executive order Thursday on a cause célèbre for conservative activists: upholding free speech on college campuses.

But the executive order won’t do much more than reiterate the Trump administration wants schools to follow existing laws on free inquiry and direct the federal agencies that fund research to make sure that they’re doing so. It’s a largely a symbolic move meant to satisfy a key demand of Trump’s conservative base.

Trump first promised he would draft an executive order to protect free speech earlier this month during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The president vowed to put in new free speech protections as he stood next to conservative activist Hayden Williams, who was allegedly attacked on the University of California Berkeley campus in February as he was recruiting members.

Conservative celebrities and activists have complained about schools canceling their speaking engagements, saying it violates constitutionally-protected free speech. Trump clearly sympathizes with them. When a Milo Yiannopoulos event at Berkeley was abruptly canceled in 2017 after anti-Yiannopoulos protests turned violent, the president threatened to pull the school’s federal funding in a tweet.

“If they want our dollars, and we give it to them by the billions, they’ve got to allow people like Hayden and many other great young people and old people to speak,” Trump said during his March CPAC speech. “Free speech. If they don’t, it will be costly. That will be signed soon.”

But the Trump administration won’t define exactly would have to happen on a college campus to put federal research grant money at risk. A senior White House official was asked to give examples numerous times during a Thursday press call, and repeatedly declined.

“I won’t get into implementation details but OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] will work with each agency on implementation,” the official said. “That will be coming in the next several weeks and months.”

Colleges already have to protect free speech to get federal money

Public universities already must operate to uphold the rights protected in the Constitution’s First Amendment. Private universities have leeway to set up their own rules around free speech, but must “comply with their stated institutional policies regarding free inquiry,” the Trump administration official said.

The language in Trump’s new executive order directs 12 federal agencies currently funding university research (including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and others) to ensure that colleges are obeying existing federal laws and regulations on free speech.

“While many schools — or all schools — are frankly supposed to follow this currently, it will ensure that grant dollars are associated through the grant-making process, and schools will have to certify that they’re following this condition,” the senior administration official told reporters on Thursday.

Those agencies, rather than the Department of Education, will have to enforce those requirements. The Trump administration official was also unable to say how much federal research money the new order would affect. “I can’t give you an exact figure,” the official said.

The reaction from at least one outside group focusing on campus free speech issues was that though Trump’s executive order should be uncontroversial on its face, it is still unclear how the administration will enforce it.

“To the extent that today’s executive order asks colleges and universities to meet their existing legal obligations, it should be uncontroversial,” the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that focuses on college free speech issues, said in a statement. “We note that the order does not specify how or by what standard federal agencies will ensure compliance, the order’s most consequential component.”

The federal government spent about $32 billion on scientific research at universities in the 2017 fiscal year, according to the National Science Foundation.

The order — which Trump is set to sign later Thursday — might still be vague in terms of policy. But it sends a message that Trump is eager to embrace the priorities of conservative activists, including those upset about being banned from college campuses.