UW Madison could lose federal funding if it violates a new executive order from President Donald Trump. Trump has expressed concern about free speech on college campuses after several high profile conservative speakers were shouted down by protesters in recent years.
He signed the executive order at the White House accompanied by university students from across the country. In his speech Trump said, “Every year the federal government provides educational institutions with more than 35 billion dollars in researching funding. All of that money is now at stake. That’s a lot of money. They are gonna not have to like your views a lot.”
It will be up to the federal agencies that award grants to enforce the executive order.
UW Madison says it will continue to protect free speech and that public universities are already required to uphold the First Amendment. UW Madison spokesperson Greg Bump says, “It is vital that members of the university community feel free to express their views on all sides of issues – and that they do so in a way that does not disrupt others’ free speech or create an unsafe environment.”
In 2017, the Wisconsin State Assembly attempted to pass a bill aimed at protecting free speech on campuses by limiting protesting tactics. While that bill never became law, UW Madison has since adopted protest guidelines. Under the guidelines, students could be suspended or expelled for participation in disruptive protests.
Charlie Mueth is a junior at UW Madison and the chair of College Republicans. He feels like his free speech is being protected on campus because of the conversations had by the state assembly. However, he believes executive order is a necessary next step. He says, “The problem with colleges is that there is very little accountability out there against, let’s say a professor silencing conservatives in class, or even the administration at university not allowing a club to bring in a certain speaker.”
As far as protesting on campus, Mueth says, “If the goal of the protest is to silence the speaker then that’s more than a protest and that shouldn’t be allowed. But if it’s simply protesting and you’re not affecting anyone else–you’re not silencing anybody–that will supported by this executive order. And nobody is going to stop anybody who’s protesting the right way without affecting other people.”
Savion Castro is a recent UW Madison graduate. He spoke in front of the state assembly against the 2017 bill. He says that the protest guidelines have made students unsure about when and how they can protest. He says, “Behavior that would totally be acceptable at a university football game isn’t necessarily acceptable during a protest. The purpose of a protest is to disrupt, and I definitely think that the vague language has chilled the atmosphere for demonstrations on campus, because we haven’t seen these rules in practice yet and we haven’t seen an example of how the university is going to go about enforcing these rules.”
Castro worries that increasing these types of speech protections have a particularly chilling effect on minority students’ voices. “Especially for students of color, or low income students, or students who aren’t historically represented at these universities, we bring a history and perspective with us that the university hasn’t traditionally heard. That history is often times rooted in protests and disrupting the status quo. If the government and the universities want to prohibit that, you know, we’re kinda stuck in a bind. We’re here for our education, but we’re also here to give a much needed perspective.”
It is unclear how large the effect of the executive order will be on universities.
Don Moynihan was a political science professor at UW Madison from 2012 to 2018. He says, “In practical terms, the executive order offers little new. For schools like UW Madison, it means they have to follow their own rules and existing first amendment expectations. However, I think the Trump executive order does create a license for those who are unaware of existing guarantees and who feel aggrieved to complain.”
Free speech was the focus of Trump’s attention at the White House, but the executive order also included a measure aiming to promote transparency surrounding student debt. It intends to hold institutions more accountable for the financial risk associated with federal student loan programs.
This story was reported by Jade Iseri-Ramos.
Featured image by Joe Brusky