President Donald Trump warned the nation's universities Thursday that they risk losing billions of dollars in federal funds if they violate their students' First Amendment free speech rights.
As conservative campus activists applauded, Trump signed an executive order titled, "Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities."
The audience included representatives of the Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization whose lawyers are challenging Arkansas State University over its free speech policies. Officials with Turning Point USA, a plaintiff in the suit, were also on hand.
State Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, was among those invited to the gathering in the East Room of the White House.
In his comments, Trump said he was "delivering a clear message to the professors and the power structures trying to suppress dissent and keep young Americans and all Americans ... from challenging rigid far-left ideology."
"Under the policy I am announcing today, federal agencies will use their authority, under various grant-making programs, to ensure that public universities protect, cherish, protect the First Amendment and First Amendment rights of their students or risk losing billions and billions of federal taxpayer dollars," he said. "Every year the federal government provides educational institutions with more than $35 billion in research funding. All of that money is now at stake."
Mildred Garcia, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said public higher learning institutions are already committed to "free expression and the unfettered pursuit of the truth."
As public institutions, these schools are already required to uphold the First Amendment, she said. "The president's executive order does not -- and cannot -- add to or subtract from our pre-existing obligations under the Constitution or the commitment of our institutions to the advancement of knowledge through the promotion of free speech and academic freedom," she said.
Before adding his signature, Trump introduced several young people who have challenged speech restrictions on their campuses.
One of them, Polly Olsen, ran afoul of school policies while attending Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.
"Last year Polly was handing out homemade Valentine's Day cards with messages such as 'You are special' and 'Jesus loves you.' College officials stopped her and told her she would be restricted to so-called 'Free-Speech Zone' because some people might find her cards offensive," Trump said, adding, "I don't."
Trump called on schools to welcome all viewpoints.
"People who are confident in their beliefs do not censor others," he said. "They welcome free, fair and open debate, and that's what we're demanding."
The executive order didn't spell out what the new standards will be. Instead, federal agencies were instructed to "take appropriate steps, in a manner consistent with applicable law, including the First Amendment, to ensure institutions that receive Federal research or education grants promote free inquiry, including through compliance with all applicable Federal laws, regulations, and policies."
The top education official in the Trump administration, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, in September referred to Arkansas State University in a speech that criticized some administrators and faculty members for "manipulating marketplaces of ideas."
"Take what recently happened to a student at Arkansas State University," DeVos said last year. She said an ASU student "wanted to recruit for a student organization she was founding, but soon learned it first had to be approved by the university."
A lawsuit against ASU was filed in December 2017 in U.S. District Court by student Ashlyn Hoggard and a chapter of Turning Point USA. The lawsuit alleges violation of free speech and due process rights, which the university has denied.
Arkansas schools reached by the Democrat-Gazette emphasized their existing commitments to free speech.
"Through both our policies and our practices, we support free speech and encourage a diversity of ideas and perspectives," University of Arkansas, Fayetteville spokesman Mark Rushing said in an email. "This will continue to be our commitment moving forward."
In Arkansas, lawmakers recently passed a law stating that public colleges and universities "shall not create free speech zones or other designated outdoor areas of campus outside of which expressive activities are prohibited."
Act 184 was signed into law on Feb. 20 by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Jeff Hankins, vice president of strategic communications for the Arkansas State University System, did not respond to an email and voice messages seeking comment.
The ASU System's board of trustees earlier this month voted to immediately drop a policy that established free-expression areas for its campuses. On March 15, the university in a court filing asked a judge to dismiss as moot the lawsuit filed by Hoggard and Turning Point USA, given the policy change.
The resolution approved by the board stated that the move to drop their policy was "due to the passage of Act 184 of 2019," which is set to take effect statewide 90 days after final adjournment of the current legislative session.
Amanda Hoelzeman, director of media relations for the University of Central Arkansas, said in an email that a campus speech policy will be reviewed because of the state law.
"In light of Act 184, we will review our existing policy and revise as necessary in order to incorporate the provisions of the Act. As we're addressing Act 184, we'll also review any executive order that may be issued," Hoelzeman said.
UCA's current policy describes a campus area near the southwest corner of the Conway campus' Ferguson Chapel as a "designated forum" that may be used "for free speech purposes." The policy also states that "other areas of campus must be scheduled for such use and approved by the university."
The university "is a free speech campus," Hoelzeman said. "Under our current free speech policy, individuals or organizations may reserve locations on campus for free speech purposes on a first-come, first-served basis. Preference is given to Registered Student Organizations."
During his remarks, Trump also expressed concerns about the student loan burdens facing roughly 43 million Americans. The total debt, he said, is more than $1 trillion.
Trump said he would direct the Department of Education and the Treasury Department "to publish detailed information on future earnings and loan repayment rates for every major and every program at every single school."
The executive order has the support of Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who believes it will "reinforce constitutionally protected activities," her spokeswoman Amanda Priest said.
Charlie Kirk, executive director of Turning Point USA, called the executive order a "historic achievement."
Tyson Langhofer, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, called it a necessary step.
"In the course of winning more than 400 legal victories since 2006, the ADF Center for Academic Freedom has continued to encounter massive free speech and other First Amendment violations, unconstitutional policies, and many repeat offenders. We appreciate the administration's understanding of this problem," he said.
The executive order drew criticism from American Council on Education President Ted Mitchell, who argued that the nation's schools are already committed to free speech and "unfettered discourse."
The organization represents college and university presidents from across the country.
"We continue to believe that this executive order is unnecessary and unwelcome, a solution in search of a problem," he said.
Metro on 03/22/2019
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