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Trump signs order tying federal grants to free speech at colleges

The president had promised conservative groups he would do this; colleges say they already abide by the First Amendment.

President Donald Trump and conservative activist Hayden Williams

President Donald Trump and conservative activist Hayden Williams at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month. Photo Credit: AP/Jose Luis Magana

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Thursday to withhold federal research funds from colleges and universities if they restrict free speech on campus.

The order comes amid complaints from conservative groups and activists who contend their campus events have been stymied by counterprotesters and restrictive campus policies. College administrators have argued that schools already abide by the First Amendment and have raised concerns that the order could be used as a tool to impede research initiatives that are at odds with the president's agenda, such as that on climate change.

Earlier this month during a speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump vowed to sign an order tying federal funding to free speech on college campuses, pointing to the case of conservative activist Hayden Williams, who was punched in the face while trying to recruit students on the University of California Berkeley Campus for the school’s chapter of the conservative group Turning Point USA.

“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 … and if they don't, it will be very costly,” Trump told the audience at CPAC.

On Thursday, in a ceremony with dozens of conservative student activists, Trump accused universities of using "speech codes" to "restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shut down the voices of great young Americans,"

Administration officials, in a conference call with reporters on Thursday, offered few details about the implementation of the order. When asked the time frame to roll it out, a senior administration official said “weeks … months.” Asked about enforcement of the policy, the official noted "schools are already supposed to be following these rules.”

"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 official said.

The order does not impact student financial aid programs, officials said. It focuses on a dozen federal agencies that dole out billions in research grants to colleges and universities, requiring the agencies, such as the Department of Defense, to add provisions to their existing contracts with schools that require the institutions to agree to protect free speech.

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

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