Updated on March 26, 2019 at 9:57 p.m.
On Thursday, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to protect free speech on college campuses. The ruling, which experts have argued is largely symbolic, will allow federal agencies to withhold research grants to institutions that they determine “are not promoting free inquiry.” However, the ruling does not elaborate on how the order will be enforced.
The executive order builds on Trump’s criticism of college campuses across America, which he has condemned for censoring conservative speakers on their campuses. Colleges, such as the University of California, Berkeley, have canceled or rescheduled events by conservative political commentators after student protests. At Columbia in particular, the debate over rules governing free speech arose when dozens of students were placed under investigation by the Office of University Life for disrupting white supremacist Tommy Robinson’s video conference in October 2017.
Although Columbia is a private institution and is not required to abide by the First Amendment, the money that it receives from the federal government is subject to the order’s conditions. In 2017, according to the National Science Foundation, Columbia received $534,658,800 in federal grant money for science and engineering research. Like most universities, University President Lee Bollinger has said, Columbia voluntarily abides by the First Amendment.
While the language of the order is ambiguous, First Amendment experts generally agree the order could pose a potential threat to free speech on college campuses, if university officials suppress speech preemptively out of a fear of a reduction of funding from the government.
“If a university starts to get nervous that they are going to lose some of these funds, I could see them swinging the other direction and being suppressive of things they think the government is not going to like,” Katy Bass, the research director for the Knight Institute, said.
The Knight First Amendment Institute, Columbia’s institute to protect free speech, has previously sued the Trump administration for alleged First Amendment violations, including the administration’s practice of blocking political opponents on Trump’s Twitter account.
Bass said the order could cause universities to crack down on student protests of controversial speakers out of concern about their research funding.
“If you know that your researching funding is going to be contingent [on government standards] and that one of the things they have in mind is a controversial speaker on campus, then what do you do about student heckling? Where would that fall on the government’s idea of supporting free inquiry? It’s not that easy to define those things,” Bass said.
In response to protests at Columbia over white supremacist speakers, Bollinger reaffirmed the right of students to invite speakers to campus, though he said those speakers’ values went against the University’s mission of inclusion.
The incidents also sparked significant conversation regarding the disciplinary measures Columbia may take against students who have violated rules regarding free expression, inspiring two Senate resolutions finalized last April in support of free speech both in and out of the classroom. However, the Rules of University Conduct Committee, which governs the disciplinary measures itself, has not changed its rules since 2015, before which they had not been reviewed for decades.
A University spokesperson declined to comment on Columbia’s potential future response to the order.
Despite the vagueness of the order’s language, Bass urged people to be skeptical of Trump’s intentions to protect free speech, given his critiques and attacks on the free press.
“The idea that [Trump] is trying to be a champion for the First Amendment does not hold water. It is hard to see this as an actual defense of free speech,” Bass said.