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Trump's new order on campus speech does much less than he thinks

With his new executive order addressing free speech on college campuses, Trump said he took "historic action." That's really not what happened.
Desks in a classroom. (Photo by Bob O'Connor/Gallery Stock)
Desks in a classroom.

During a long, rambling appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Donald Trump made a curious announcement. "Today I'm proud to announce that I will be very soon signing an executive order requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research dollars," the president declared.

Yesterday, we learned what he was talking about.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday that would withhold federal research and education funds from colleges if they don't certify that they will protect free-speech rights on campus."We're here to take historic actions to defend American students and American values," Trump said at the White House. "They've been under siege." [...]Public colleges and universities are already required to abide by the First Amendment.

It's that last sentence that stands out for a reason.

As the NBC News report on this makes clear, American colleges and universities do receive billions of dollars in federal funds every year, and while the White House said Trump's policy wouldn't affect tuition assistance, it could affect research and development funding for schools that fail to protect First Amendment rights.

There are, of course, a couple of problems with this. The first is the disconnect between the message and the messenger: maybe the guy who discusses official retribution against comedy shows that hurt his feelings, and uses Stalin-esque rhetoric to condemn the free press, should pause before presenting himself as a champion of the First Amendment.

The second is that Trump's new "policy" does far less than the president suggested.

Politico's report noted, for example, "The order ... essentially reinforces what schools are already supposed to be doing by formally requiring colleges to agree to promote free inquiry in order to get billions of dollars in federal research funding."

Vox added that Trump's executive order "won't do much more than reiterate the Trump administration wants schools to follow existing laws.... It's a largely a symbolic move meant to satisfy a key demand of Trump's conservative base."

Quite right. Trump didn't sign an executive order to advance a policy goal or address a substantive problem; he did it to stoke political fires. Conservatives are convinced that academia has turned them into victims, so the president put on a political show to tell them how right they are.

"What we're doing is very important," the president said at yesterday's White House event, "and we're here to take historic action."

In reality, the executive action was far from "historic," and it didn't really take "action."