Earlier this month, President Donald Trump told the Conservative Political Action Conference that he would sign an executive order “requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research dollars.”
Even if you worry about threats to free speech on campus, there was something ominous about Trump’s pledge.
First, the president who rails against “fake news” and who wants to “open up our libel laws” has zero credibility as a proponent of free speech. Second, Trump linked his promise to protecting conservative students and opposing attempts at censorship by the “hard left.” That suggested a “free speech” crusade with an ideological bias.
On Thursday, at a signing ceremony attended by conservative students, Trump made good on his promise. The president used the occasion to attack universities that “shut down the voices of great young Americans like those here today.” He added dramatically: “All of that changes starting right now. We’re dealing with billions and billions and billions of dollars.”
But guess what? The much-hyped executive order turned out to be mostly a restatement of current law.
Far from establishing a new and intrusive regulatory regime, the order says that federal agencies shall “take appropriate steps, in a manner consistent with applicable law, including the 1st Amendment, to ensure institutions that receive federal research or education grants promote free inquiry, including through compliance with all applicable federal laws, regulations and policies.”
And much of the order deals not with free speech on campus but with transparency about the costs associated with attending particular colleges. The title of the order is: “Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency and Accountability at Colleges and Universities.”
Conceivably, the administration could use this order as a launching pad for a more intrusive — and ideologically skewed — investigation of speech policies at universities. But it looks as if Trump promised much to conservatives and delivered very little.
That’s standard operating procedure for Trump. He did the same thing almost two years ago when, in an elaborate Rose Garden ceremony, he signed an executive order that he said did away with a federal law prohibiting churches and other charities from endorsing political candidates.
As exasperated editorial writers and fact-checkers pointed out, the order did no such thing. It said only that in enforcing that law, the IRS couldn’t regulate political speech by churches more aggressively than similar speech by other nonprofits. But Trump was able to tell his conservative Christian base that he had scored a victory for them.
Universities can breathe a sigh of relief that Trump doesn’t seem to be proposing major new federal interference in their affairs. The rest of us can marvel at the gullibility of some of the president’s supporters.
Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times’ senior editorial writer, based in Washington, D.C.