Trump signs executive order on campus free speech

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Dems demand Barr cancel 'inappropriate' press conference on Mueller report DOJ plans to release 'lightly redacted' version of Mueller report Thursday: WaPo Nadler accuses Barr of 'unprecedented steps' to 'spin' Mueller report MORE on Thursday signed an executive order aimed at protecting free speech on college campuses, in an event attended by students who say their conservative views have been infringed upon. 

The new order will require higher education institutions to certify that they are enforcing free speech standards in order to receive grants through the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services (HHS) and Defense, among other agencies.

"Under the guise of speech codes, and safe spaces, and trigger warnings, these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shut down the voices of great young Americans," Trump said at a signing ceremony.

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"All of that changes, starting right now,” he added. “We’re dealing with billions and billions and billions of dollars."

Trump announced his intention to sign the directive during a raucous speech earlier this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference. He made it official on Thursday, portraying the decision as part of a broader crusade to protect the rights of conservatives and others who have complained of restrictive atmospheres on college campuses.

"Today’s acton is just the beginning of our efforts to protect free speech," Trump said, encouraging those in attendance to "keep standing up for your values."

Thursday's order is likely to draw pushback from civil liberties groups and others worried about the executive branch weighing in on First Amendment issues on campus.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar Alexander Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback Five things to know about the measles outbreak MORE (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, expressed concerns about Trump or lawmakers defining what can and can't be said on college campuses.

"The U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech. Federal courts define and enforce it. The Department of Justice can weigh in," Alexander said in a statement. "Conservatives don’t like it when judges try to write laws, and conservatives should not like it when legislators and agencies try to rewrite the Constitution."

The executive order, titled "Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities," lacked specifics on how the administration would define infringement on First Amendment rights or how it would be implemented.

"Schools are already supposed to be following these rules and essentially each agency already conditions grants, and schools are certifying they’re following these conditions, and it will just add free speech as one of those conditions," a senior administration official said.

The official added that aid programs that go toward tuition and stipends will not be affected by the order.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosGOP lawmaker calls for investigation into alleged 'anti-Israeli bias' at Duke-UNC conference The Special Olympics are safe, but what about other programs DeVos would cut? DeVos defends controversial guidance on transgender students MORE, HHS Secretary Alex Azar, state lawmakers and dozens of college students attended Thursday's signing.

Polly Olson, a student at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, described how officials at her college restricted her ability to hand out Valentine's Day cards that contained religious messages.

Another student, Ellen Wittman, said that officials at Miami University in Ohio told her she would need to provide a "trigger warning" for students when planning an event to display crosses representing the lives of the unborn.

A number of conservative activists have complained in the time since Trump took office about hostile treatment on college campuses, even as many of those individuals mock liberals and the concept of "safe spaces."

Conservative activist Hayden Williams was punched in the face during a visit to the University of California, Berkeley last month. Neither Williams nor the assailant attend the school.

Right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos had events canceled at campuses across the country following the president's election. The cancellation of a February 2017 event at Berkeley prompted Trump to threaten the school's federal funding.