U.S. President Donald Trump speaks before signing an executive order to require colleges and universities to “support free speech” on campus or risk loss of federal research funds during an event in the East Room of the White House on Thursday, March 21, 2019. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
Photo: Olivier Douliery
Photo: Olivier Douliery

Trump vows to withhold money to colleges violating campus speech rules

President Donald Trump said Thursday his administration will cut research funding to colleges and universities that violate the rights of student groups and people invited to speak or hold events on campus.

“If a college or university doesn’t allow you to speak, we will not give them money. It’s very simple,” Trump said to applause before signing an executive order outlining the policy at the White House.

Some conservative student groups and faith-based organizations in Georgia have won lawsuit settlements in recent years after filing complaints that schools illegally prevented them from speaking or posting displays on campus. State lawmakers passed legislation sponsored by Senate Republicans last year that requires, among other things, the Georgia Board of Regents submit an annual report detailing any violations of campus freedom of expression policies.

>> RELATED | Georgia college students score victories in free speech battles

The federal government awards an estimated $35 billion annually in research funding, Trump said. About $1 billion of those dollars comes to Georgia’s public and private colleges and universities.

Critics characterized Trump’s order as a wrongheaded action that could have unintended consequences on faculty conducting research who have no involvement in such actions.

“Federal research grants are given to professors and they don’t decide who gets to reserve a room for a ‘controversial speaker,’”said Matthew Boedy, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia. “And by the way, federal money also pays for programs that aid minorities on campus, first generation students, and nontraditional students such as veterans.”

Trump said the executive order is one of several upcoming initiatives to protect student rights. The president also said his administration will present a plan requiring colleges and universities to share part of the financial risk of student loan debt as “an incentive to keep their costs down.” Trump did not elaborate on the plan. Federal student loan debt has tripled since 2007 to about $1.5 trillion, Trump administration officials have said.

Thursday’s order will require schools to adhere to current grant award guidelines involving freedom of expression. Implementation and enforcement guidelines are being developed, officials said in a conference call with reporters.

The University System of Georgia updated its policy in 2017 to ensure each campus provides high-traffic, accessible areas for speakers. The system released a statement Thursday highlighting those guidelines and ongoing policies to improve financial literacy.

>> RELATED | Georgia legislature passes college campus speech bill

Trump signed his executive order the same day Emory University began a three-day conference exploring best practices for academic freedom and free speech on college campuses. The university also released a statement saying it will review Trump’s order “as we believe that robust discussions about important issues, including discourse about freedom of expression, is essential to our nation’s future.”


The lawsuit says the college told a student not to hand out Christian pamphlets on campus.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.