Trump vows executive order requiring 'free speech' at colleges

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday he would soon sign an executive order requiring American universities and colleges to maintain “free speech” on campuses and threatened that schools not complying could lose federal research funds.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) annual meeting at National Harbor near Washington, U.S., March 2, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Trump made his remarks at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference after bringing to the stage Hayden Williams, a conservative activist who was punched at the University of California, Berkeley, last month while recruiting students for a conservative group.

“Today, I am 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 funds,” Trump said.

If universities do not comply “it will be very costly,” he said. The U.S. government awards universities more than $30 billion annually in research funds.

The White House did not immediately respond a request for comment on details of the order.

Freedom of speech is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

It is not the first time that Trump, who has repeatedly lashed out at the media with cries of “fake news” and has called current defamation laws “a sham and a disgrace,” has threatened retaliatory action related to free speech. Last September, he suggested in a tweet that the license of television networks could be at risk, though he offered no specifics in his tweet, which singled out NBC.

Broadcast networks do not receive general licenses, but they do hold licenses from the Federal Communications Commission for individual local stations they own.

In 2017, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the agency does not have authority to revoke broadcast licenses over editorial decisions. “I believe in the First Amendment,” said Pai, whom Trump appointed as the FCC chair.

Trump on Saturday suggested that Williams sue the man who punched him and also “sue the college, the university. And maybe sue the state.” He suggested that Williams was going to be “a very wealthy young man.”

If universities “want our dollars -- and we give to them by the billions -- they have to allow people like Hayden and many other great young people and old people to speak -- free speech,” Trump said.

Trump administration officials have suggested that the rights of speakers on college campuses have been trampled by student protesters who find their views offensive and suggested conservatives have been unfairly targeted.

The U.S. Justice Department filed a statement of interest in 2018 in a free speech lawsuit filed against the University of California, Berkeley, accusing the school of discriminating against speakers with conservative views.

In a settlement announced in December, the university will modify its procedures for handling “major events,” which typically draw hundreds of people, and agreed not to charge “security” fees for a variety of activities, including lectures and speeches. It will also pay $70,000 to cover legal costs of the Berkeley College Republicans and the Tennessee-based Young America’s Foundation.

Reporting by David Shepardson, Katanga Johnson; Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan in Washington; Editidng by Leslie Adler