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WASHINGTON, D.C., March 22, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – On Thursday President Donald Trump signed an executive order he says will protect free speech at America’s colleges and universities by threatening to withhold certain federal funds from institutions that don’t protect their students’ dissenting speech and inquiry.

“It is the policy of the Federal Government to…encourage institutions to foster environments that promote open, intellectually engaging, and diverse debate,” the order reads, “including through compliance with the First Amendment for public institutions and compliance with stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech for private institutions.”

To achieve these ends, it directs the heads of the Departments of Education, Health & Human Services, Defense, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Transportation, and Energy, as well as the heads of the EPA, NASA, and National Science Foundation, to “take appropriate steps, in a manner consistent with applicable law, including the First 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.”

Other provisions of the executive order also require the Department of Education to make recommendations for risk-sharing proposals for federal student loans, and publish additional data on student outcomes, debt, loans, and more.

“Under the guise of ‘speech codes’ and ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings,’ these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity, and shut down the voices of great young Americans like those here today,” the president declared.

“All of that changes starting right now,” he continued. “We’re dealing with billions and billions and billions of dollars. Taxpayer dollars should not subsidize anti-First Amendment institutions.  And that’s exactly what they are: anti-First Amendment. Universities that want taxpayer dollars should promote free speech, not silence free speech.”

The order doesn’t apply to federal student loans or grants, and it’s not yet clear how exactly it will be enforced or differ from existing law. Politico and USA Today report that a senior administration official characterized the order as simply requiring schools to certify that they’re following preexisting grant requirements, and that the Office of Management and Budget will work out the specifics with the covered departments and agencies.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) responded with a statement that it “will watch closely to see if today’s action furthers the meaningful, lasting policy changes that FIRE has secured over two decades — or results in unintended consequences that threaten free expression and academic freedom.”

Still, many conservatives hope the order will be a starting point to restore free speech in academia. Joining Trump for the signing were a group of college students and recent graduates he lauded for “refus[ing] to be silenced by powerful institutions and closed-minded critics” and “fac[ing] down intimidation, pressure and abuse.”

Among those students was Ellen Wittman, president of Students for Life at Miami University in Ohio, who was invited to discuss the school’s 2017 refusal to let the group put up a “Cemetery of the Innocents” with wooden crosses to recognize abortion victims unless it posted “trigger warning” signs around campus.

“My story is so important because I have seen lives saved through my Students for Life efforts on campus. But I never imagined the hostility I would face when trying to express my beliefs,” Wittman said, explaining that while “universities are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas,” speech “is not free when university officials put conditions on student speech. The only permit we need to speak on campus is the First Amendment.”

Prior to the executive order’s release, conservative commentator Steve Deace warned that Trump’s “first religious freedom order was a joke until we complained enough and got a real one,” recalling conservatives’ disappointment over the religious freedom order not matching the stronger language of a leaked draft and suggesting constructive feedback on Thursday’s order could lead to stronger protections in the future.