ABOVE: President Trump delivers remarks prior to signing the executive order.

Yesterday (March 21), President Donald Trump issued an executive order requiring colleges and universities to protect free speech in exchange for federal research funds. 

The order charges colleges and universities to follow existing free speech protections. It mandates public institutions to uphold the US Constitution’s First Amendment while private organizations that receive federal funding are to abide by their “stated institutional policies,” according to Inside Higher Ed.

The policy enlists the 12 federal agencies that issue grants, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, to work with the White House’s Office of Management and Budget “to ensure institutions that receive Federal research or education grants promote free inquiry,” according to Inside Higher Ed

“We’re dealing with billions and billions and billions of dollars....

It’s yet unclear how the order will be implemented and whether it will be used to cut off research funding to institutions found lacking in their free speech protections. Trump had announced the possibility of such an action in a speech on March 2. 

See “Trump Threatens to Cut Federal Research Funding Over Free Speech

To critics, the new policy appears to be a solution in search of a problem. “Public universities are already bound by the First Amendment and work each day to defend and honor it,” says Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, in a statement, calling the order “plainly unnecessary” and a “very concerning federal overreach.”

Because of the President’s language in the statement and in his speeches and tweets, the measure appears politically motivated. “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,” Sigal Ben-Porath, a political philosopher at the University of Pennsylvania, tells NatureAlso, because the President has referenced incidents at the University of California, Berkeley, involving conservative activists, it looks like what “the administration is trying to protect is not, in fact, free inquiry, but the enhancement of conservative voices,” she says.

Ultimately, the courts may determine the order’s fate, reports Nature. However, without clear guidelines from the government on what it means to protect free speech and the consequences for institutions that do not, it will be hard for anyone to sue the Trump administration over this policy, Frederick Hess, American Enterprise Institute’s director of education-policy studies, tells Nature

Interested in reading more?

The Scientist ARCHIVES

Become a Member of

Receive full access to more than 35 years of archives, as well as TS Digest, digital editions of The Scientist, feature stories, and much more!
Already a member?