By signing an executive order Thursday, President Donald Trump joined the Iowa Legislature in establishing rules the Republican politicians say will ensure conservative views aren’t stifled on campus.
The president’s executive order sets up a process for tying “free speech” on public university campuses to federal grants — meaning institutions found to violate the First Amendment risk losing millions in federal money, but not in student financial aid.
Under the order, the schools themselves certify whether they are protecting students’ free speech rights, which already are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
The order requires that schools ensure they allow students to express themselves in order to receive funds from 12 federal agencies.
Trump administration officials have suggested that the rights of speakers on college campuses have been trampled by student protesters, and that conservatives have been unfairly targeted.
“Universities that want tax dollars should protect free speech, not silence free speech,” Trump said.
Federal government sources committed more than $260 million in 2018 to the University of Iowa and its medical facilities. Federal sources committed $170.3 million that same year to Iowa State University.
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Both universities have found themselves embroiled in free speech or religious liberty disputes over the last few years.
At ISU, one student had invited white nationalist Milo Yiannopoulos to speak in December 2016. The university planned to allow the visit, but insisted on higher event fees to cover the costs of added security.
ISU said it would delay the appearance to give the Yiannopoulos camp more time to raise the money, but the offer was declined and the speech was canceled.
Since fall 2017, the UI has been in a legal dispute with the faith-based student group Business Leaders in Christ.
The university deregistered the group and kicked it off campus after finding it had refused to allow a gay student to become one of its leaders.
The group sued in federal court, arguing it could choose leaders aligned with its values and that UI was unevenly enforcing its human rights policies — singling it out for punishment while ignoring other violations in other groups.
A federal judge recently resolved the claims with a split decision — mandating the group be allowed back on campus permanently unless the university starts equally enforcing its human rights policy.
A lawsuit against the UI from another faith-based group is pending.
With state lawmakers citing the cases, the GOP- controlled Iowa Legislature this month sent to the governor a measure that would designate most of public university and college campuses as free-speech zones. Moreover, the bill requires universities to recognize student groups like Business Leaders in Christ that enforce their beliefs in selecting leaders.
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The Iowa Board of Regents said it already complies with free-speech requirements. “Our public universities are places where all viewpoints should and can be heard and respected,” spokesman Josh Lehman said earlier this year.
Before signing the order, Trump invited student speakers to tell stories of being silenced on campus. Some said while suppression of certain viewpoints on campus has been a long-running issue, it has worsened.
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, which has groups on high school and college campuses in every state, said students have told her about other students — and professors — obstructing efforts to share their views against abortion rights, including erasing sidewalk chalk messages and pulling crosses from the ground.
“They have had to fight for their First Amendment rights,” Hawkins said. “This is an exciting day for us.”
Reuters and the Washington Post contributed to this report.