Beneath the surface: Trump’s proposed executive order

President Donald Trump pauses as he speaks during a signing ceremony for an executive order on a "National Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End Veteran Suicide," in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Trump recently announced that he will sign an executive order to promote freedom of speech on college campuses. This will apply mostly to public institutions, because private schools are not funded by the government, so they have the right to censor speech on their campuses. For the most part, Trump is not proposing anything new regarding freedom of speech, he simply integrated government funding. While this order is still in the works, its basic function is to penalize universities that do not protect conservative speech with a big reduction in government funding. 

When announcing this executive order at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC),   

“Trump highlighted the case of Hayden Williams, who was recruiting Feb. 19 at the University of California at Berkeley for the conservative group Turning Point USA when two men approached and one punched Williams during a confrontation captured on student cell phones.” The timing of this announcement (nearing the 2020 election and immediately after a violent clash between conservatives and liberals) seems strategic. An executive order that protects conservative speech on college campuses (that is announced in the midst of 2020 election discussions) is most likely a political initiative to get young conservative voters to the polls.  

Moreover, by addressing the various attacks on conservative speech on college campuses, Trump is appealing to the same social group that voted him into the White House in 2016. In order to maintain his campaign from 2016 through the 2020 elections, Trump must appeal to the same supporters that voted for him in the past and prove that he is working in their best interest. In doing so, he will take action that portrays his support of his voters, like defending their freedom of speech. By addressing the UC Berkeley incident, Trump is sending the message to his supporters that their speech should be protected even in very liberal campuses.  

In his announcement of this executive order, Trump said “we believe in the First Amendment right (to free speech), and we believe in religious liberty!” While there is an explicit connection between Trump’s executive order and freedom of speech, it is difficult to understand why he brought up freedom of religion when discussing the right to free speech on campus. The answer lies in his 2016 campaign, where he gained the support of many Evangelicals. In 2016, Evangelicals made up 26 percent of the electorate which made them key to Trump’s road to the White House. To gain their support in 2016, Trump made sure to integrate Evangelicals into his campaign; he created an Evangelical advisory board and involved Evangelical pastors in his campaign. Integrating this group in the 2020 campaign and maintaining their support may allow Trump to stay in the White House. By simply mentioning religious liberty, Trump is integrating religion into his speeches, and ensuring to Evangelicals that their religious ideals are important to the administration, which will ultimately encourage them to vote for Trump again in 2020. 

As the divide between liberals and conservatives intensifies, the expression of one group will rattle or offend the other; protecting everyone’s speech becomes difficult when expression turns into attacks and aggressive speech. In the eyes of Donald Trump, college campuses are often platforms for more liberal speech rather than conservative, and he wants to change that because it will ultimately benefit him in 2020. 


Keren Blaunstein is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus.  She can be reached via email at keren.blaunstein@uconn.edu.