U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2019

Trump announced his plans for the executive order in early March.Credit: Tasos Katopodis/Bloomberg

US President Donald Trump signed an executive order on 21 March that requires universities to certify that they protect free speech, or risk losing federal research funds.

Public institutions will have to certify that they are following free-speech protections laid out in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, and private institutions must promise to follow their stated policies on free speech, a White House official told reporters on 21 March.

The order applies to 12 research agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and NASA. It affects only money for research, not financial aid for students.

“We’re dealing with billions and billions and billions of dollars,” Trump said in a speech just before signing the order. “Taxpayer dollars should not subsidize anti-First Amendment institutions.” He said that the order was the first in a series of steps that his administration intends to take to “defend students’ rights”.

Fuzzy future

Details of how the Trump administration will implement and enforce the order are still fuzzy, but academic organizations are concerned that the policy could create more problems than it will solve.

The order is “a solution in search of a problem”, and seems designed to undermine trust in higher education and science, said Julie Schmid, executive director of the American Association of University Professors in Washington DC, in a statement.

“It is also troubling that in his remarks the president sought to drive a wedge between students and faculty, casting his executive order as a ‘clear message to the professors’ that their funding was now at risk while also raising the specters of ‘political indoctrination’ and ‘coercion,’” Schmid wrote.

Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities in Washington DC, called the order “plainly unnecessary” in a statement. “Public universities are already bound by the First Amendment and work each day to defend and honor it,” he said.

Sigal Ben-Porath, a political philosopher at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, says that the order might not have significant practical implications. “It reads to me more like a declaration and a message to some parts of the voting population than an actual regulatory or legal change,” she says.

More to come?

Universities must comply with numerous federal regulations — such as laws barring discrimination on the basis of race or gender — to receive federal research funding, Ben-Porath adds. Complying with the free-speech order could be as simple as filling out a little more paperwork, she says.

Still, Ben-Porath is concerned that Trump’s order could signal that his administration will make further attempts to regulate free speech on campuses, and that the president’s real motivation is political.

In remarks earlier this month, Trump drew connections between the policy and an incident last month on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. A conservative activist was assaulted while recruiting students to his organization. Neither the activist nor the man accused of punching him — who was arrested and pleaded not guilty — is a student at the university.

Announcing the order in the context of the Berkeley protests “tells me that what the administration is trying to protect is not, in fact, free inquiry, but the enhancement of conservative voices”, Ben-Porath says.

The order is likely to be legally controversial, says Frederick Hess, director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. Although the text of the policy does not mention politics, Trump’s speeches and tweets have indicated that his action is intended to protect conservative voices, Hess says.

Ultimately, the courts are likely to decide whether the order stands. Hess says that it will be difficult for anyone to sue the administration over the policy until the government clarifies its definition of protecting free speech and outlines any consequences for universities that do not meet those criteria.

The Trump administration plans to release more information in the coming weeks and months about how the order will be implemented and enforced.