Donald Trump is amplifying his amorphous threats to cut off federal aid to colleges deemed to be failing to protect free speech – but the practical impact of the threats may be secondary to their political impact, ahead of next year's election.
In his most recent blast at academia, the US president promised a cheering crowd of teenage conservatives that he would tie the $35 billion (£28 billion) in annual federal spending on university research and other grant aid for higher education to compliance on free speech.
“Any college that refuses now to respect your First Amendment rights will be asking for billions and billions of dollars, and they won’t be getting it,” Mr Trump told a conference held by the right-wing student organisation Turning Point USA in Washington on 23 July.
Mr Trump first raised that idea back in March, embracing the long-standing tool that federal policymakers use to impose their will on states: conditioning federal dollars on cooperative behaviours.
Common examples in higher education include laws requiring universities to obtain accreditation and to avoid gender-based discrimination to remain eligible for billions of dollars in student loans and grants.
But presidents do not generally have the ability to impose such conditions unilaterally without the support of Cprongress.
Beyond that hurdle, as many individual states are discovering, there are big questions about whether free speech violations on college campuses are so widespread that new laws are required, and about how best to write rules that will help more than they hurt.
About a third of all states have enacted such measures, incited by Mr Trump and other political conservatives complaining that college campuses are liberal bastions that shout down conservative speakers or prevent them from even appearing.
The problem is real and goes beyond partisan exaggeration, said Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The group, also known as FIRE, is a 20-year-old lobby group advocating a non-partisan approach to protecting free speech rights on university campuses.
Yet many states are having trouble reaching a productive balance, Mr Cohn said. Some, he said, are unwisely requiring colleges to impose mandatory suspensions and expulsions for broad categories of disruptive behaviours towards speakers.
Such policies can remove from colleges the ability to make important case-by-case and person-by-person distinctions about what was actually done, Mr Cohn said.
Actions such as displaying protest signs or shouting briefly are and should be generally protected, while a sustained action to drown out a speaker should not be, he argued. For free speech defenders in many states, Mr Cohn said, these prescriptive codes are “too rigid and likely to be abused in the other direction”.
States are being helpful, however, when they force colleges to halt the practice of “free speech zones”, Mr Cohn said. Such zones often confine unpopular voices to locations on campus outside the places where they are likely to be heard, he said.
States also can help by making institutions liable for damages in such cases, Mr Cohn continued. Otherwise, he said, students need to sue individually, and the length of time courts typically take to adjudicate complaints can often mean that juniors and seniors will graduate and lose legal standing before they can obtain a verdict.
The fact that an executive order on the subject likely would be unenforceable or subject to court challenge has little importance to Mr Trump and his right-wing admirers, said Larry J. Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia.
Mr Trump rarely seeks the attention of anyone beyond the hard-core conservative groups that he is now seeking to energise for a strong electoral turnout in next year’s presidential election, said Dr Sabato, founder and director of his university’s Center for Politics. And campus free speech has become a hot-button issue for sections of the right, where colleges are viewed as hotbeds of liberal bias.
“This is just Trump showing the flag once again and saying, ‘I’m on your side,’” Dr Sabato said. “What does Trump have to lose? He’s not going to get many votes from faculty and students in 2020 anyway.”
The Trump administration, meanwhile, does not appear to be consulting with higher education leaders as it considers its options. The leading higher education lobby group, the American Council on Education, criticised Mr Trump’s plan in March as “unnecessary and unwelcome, a solution in search of a problem”. A spokesman said that the group has had no updates since then.
Print headline: Trump renews free speech threat to US campuses