For several years, college campuses have experienced protests and counter-protests related to controversial speakers and performers who were invited to give presentations to students and faculty.
Earlier this month, these high-profile incidents caused President Trump to issue what Ars Technica is calling "a rather dramatic threat" to cut $35 billion in research funding that colleges and universities receive if campuses don't protect free speech to his satisfaction. Last week, he followed through with an executive order targeting "free inquiry" at colleges and universities, but the language of the order is so vague that the consequences for research funding are uncertain, Ars Technica reports.
"The order itself actually lumps together two unrelated issues. The first is the cost of education relative to its likely payoff in terms of gainful employment; the order seeks to ensure better disclosure of this by colleges," the article adds. "That has been joined to what the order refers to as 'free inquiry' issues, which the order defines as related to First Amendment compliance — meaning free speech on campuses."
In fact, Ars Technica notes, this executive order is most likely not needed at all. The popular narrative on the right that conservatives are disporportionately targeted is not clear, and an analysis by a center-right think tank has suggested that actual issues of free speech curtailment peaked a few years back and are now in decline.
Further, Ars Technica adds, there is extensive legal precedent that has determined that publicly funded universities are bound to protect the First Amendment, and that private ones can set their own standards. So there's already a legal system in place to help redress grievances for anyone who think their First Amendment rights may have been violated on a college campus.
"There are clearly some cases where universities have had to balance protecting free speech against providing a platform from which speakers could make false statements," Ars Technica says. "But it's not clear that this is a widespread problem or one that could be solved with federal intervention."
The executive order, however, threatens universities and the research they do to the tune of $35 billion. "If a college or university does not allow you to speak, we will not give them money," Trump said at the signing ceremony. "Every year the federal government provides educational institutions with more than $35 billion dollars in research funding. All of that money is now at stake."
The executive order also specifically calls on the agencies that fund most of the scientific research in the US -- including the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation -- to get involved, Ars Technica says. But it doesn't say how they should follow through, only that they should identify any institutions that receive federal research or education grants and ensure that they "promote free inquiry, including through compliance with all applicable Federal laws, regulations, and policies."
The order doesn't contain any criteria for measuring compliance, or what to do as punishment. "If there's a threat to withhold research funding, it's not spelled out in the actual executive order. In addition, it's not sure what the order adds compared to existing standards," Ars Technica says. "Private institutions can simply alter their policies so that their existing management of speech issues is in compliance, while public institutions were already bound by the First Amendment. In other words, while the announcement includes threats to $35 billion in research money, it's not clear whether the actions that followed change anything."