SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump didn't reference religion in his new executive order on campus free speech, but that hasn't stopped some advocacy groups from calling it a win for religious freedom.
Supporters say the order, which bans colleges and universities from receiving federal research grants if they fail to promote free speech, will ensure that religious students feel safe sharing their views on campus. At the signing ceremony, Trump was joined by students who said they've felt pressured by their schools not to speak out against abortion or discuss their faith.
"The real March madness? State universities that won't follow the (First) Amendment," tweeted the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "The White House (executive order) says they must do better. Agencies should ensure that any public schools discriminating against religious student groups are held accountable."
The order will allow students to have the best college experience possible, said Mike Berry, chief of staff for First Liberty Institute, a law firm focused on religious liberty cases, in a statement.
"President Trump’s executive order ensures that college students are free from speech codes that stifle such debate, thwart religious expression, and limit education," he said.
However, some school leaders and policy experts say reactions like these make too much out of a mostly empty gesture. The order does not outline what represents a free speech violation and instead reflects in general terms on the value of free inquiry.
"This executive order is unnecessary and unwelcome, a solution in search of a problem," said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, in a statement.
Campus free speech has been a contentious issue for decades, but debates over whether campuses should disinvite controversial — and usually politically conservative — speakers have picked up steam over the last two years. Chaotic protests in response to such guests have made national news, and other institutions have been criticized for cancelling speaker appearances in an effort to avoid the same fate.
In 2018, 23 states, including Utah, debated 39 bills aimed at reducing speech-related conflict on college campuses, according to a Deseret News analysis.
These measures typically instruct university leaders to adopt new, stronger free speech protections and publish an annual report on speech-related campus incidents, such as cancelled speeches or times when a student was punished for handing out flyers with religious messages. Some include specific protections for religious or political student groups, ensuring they are treated the same as other groups on campus.
"What we have tried to do through this legislation is promote the truth that both sides of any debate need to have their voices heard," said Jonathan Butcher, who co-authored one of the model campus free speech bills considered by state legislatures, to the Deseret News last year.
In recent years, colleges and universities have also been sued over how they enforce the First Amendment.
For example, last year, Becket filed lawsuits on behalf of two conservative Christian student groups at the University of Iowa. The groups had been kicked off campus for requiring leaders to affirm certain religious beliefs, such as that marriage should only be between one man and one woman.
Becket won the first of those two challenges last month, the Deseret News reported. Trump's order affirms that what the University of Iowa did was wrong, Becket said.
"The (executive order) reinforces what (the University of Iowa) should have known all along. Of course, religious groups can require their leaders to be religious," Becket tweeted.
The order, which was signed March 21, instructs federal agencies, including the Departments of Education, Energy and Agriculture, to "ensure institutions that receive federal research or education grants promote free inquiry." During the signing ceremony, Trump said it was aimed at ensuring students feel free to share their views.
"We will not stand idly by and allow public institutions to violate their students' constitutional rights," Trump said when he signed the order, according to NPR. "If a college or university doesn't allow you to speak, we will not give them money. It's very simple."
The order doesn't spell out how federal agencies should enforce these new guidelines, which is part of why policy experts like Mitchell are skeptical of its value.
It also doesn't address what some campus leaders say is a bigger problem: Students' deteriorating interest in interacting with people who hold different views than them.
"Students increasingly tend to congregate with people like themselves," said Geoffrey Stone, a law professor and free speech advocate at the University of Chicago, to the Deseret News last year.
Student support for prohibiting certain offensive speech on college campuses is rising, according to a 2017 survey on the First Amendment and university life. In 2017, 29 percent of U.S. college students said it was more important for schools to create a positive environment by prohibiting certain speech than to create an open learning environment by allowing all speech, compared to 22 percent in 2016.29 comments on this story
These shifts should concern religious freedom advocates, since robust conscience rights depend on our ability to hear everyone's views and civilly disagree, said Robert George, who teaches jurisprudence at Princeton University, to the Deseret News last year.
"We want to try to teach people that there's everything to be gained and absolutely nothing to be lost from listening to each other and engaging with each other, from recognizing our own fallibility and trying to learn from people, including people you disagree with," he said.