Donald Trump takes cue from young conservative firebrand Charlie Kirk, signs an executive order for free speech on college campuses

Charlie Kirk Donald TrumpPresident Donald Trump greets Charlie Kirk before participating in a forum called Generation Next at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC, in March 2018.Leah Millis/Reuters

  • President Donald Trump on Wednesday will sign an executive order designed to protect free speech on college campuses.
  • Trump was urged to do this by conservative youth advocacy group Turning Point USA and its leader Charlie Kirk, who's made this issue TPUSA's top priority.
  • "I have spent the last six years of my life speaking at college campuses around the country, and I know firsthand the hostility, vitriol and violence constantly directed toward conservative students for peacefully advocating for their beliefs," Kirk said in a statement to INSIDER on Thursday.
  • Kirk was invited to attend the signing ceremony for the order.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday will sign an executive order designed to protect free speech on college campuses after being urged to do so by Turning Point USA's president and founder Charlie Kirk, an outspoken conservative and rising star on the political right.

The order calls for federal funding for research to be withheld from universities if they do not agree to uphold the First Amendment, but the details of how it will be implemented and enforced are hazy.

"Free inquiry is an essential feature of our Nation's democracy, and it promotes learning, scientific discovery, and economic prosperity," the order states. "We must encourage institutions to appropriately account for this bedrock principle in their administration of student life and to avoid creating environments that stifle competing perspectives, thereby potentially impeding beneficial research and undermining learning."

Read more: Meet Charlie Kirk, the 25-year-old self-declared free speech absolutist and BFF to Trump Jr. who's rapidly taking over the conservative movement

This move came after a Turning Point activist in California, Hayden Williams, was physically assaulted on UC Berkeley's campus in February while recruiting for the organization. A video of the incident was shared by Kirk on social media, which went viral and sparked outrage among conservatives.

In response, Trump vowed to issue an executive order on free speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, in early March.

"If they want our dollars, and we give it to them by the billions, they've got to allow people like Hayden and many other great young people and old people to speak," Trump said during his speech at the conference.

"Ladies and gentlemen, he took a hard punch in the face for all of us," the president added as he brought Hayden onto the stage for the announcement.

The order is a major victory for Kirk, who has long alleged that college campuses are infected with liberal bias.

"I have spent the last six years of my life speaking at college campuses around the country, and I know firsthand the hostility, vitriol and violence constantly directed toward conservative students for peacefully advocating for their beliefs, just like Hayden Williams was doing for us at UC Berkeley when he was attacked," Kirk said in a statement provided to INSIDER.

Kirk said Thursday's "executive order is the culmination of Turning Point USA's tireless work to break the left's stranglehold on campus, a grip that has suffocated the free exchange of ideas and helped indoctrinate an entire generation to hate America, the freest, most prosperous, decent and generous country ever to exist."

The conservative firebrand said "most universities today have become breeding grounds for socialism and Marxism" but still "understand money above all else."

"The only way to affect real change and reform is by threatening to withhold funding if they fail to protect the First Amendment rights of their students, faculty, staff, and speakers," Kirk added.

He went on to say that there is still "much work to be done" but he is celebrating what he called a "historic achievement," applauding Turning Point USA's "army of student activists all across the country who have been working for so long, largely in obscurity and often at great personal risk."

Kirk, who is set to attend the signing on Thursday, also expressed his gratitude to Trump. "It is truly one of the great honors of my life to be able to attend today's signing ceremony at the White House," Kirk said.

Read more: GOP chairwoman says the party needs 'more people like' Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens, another sign that Trumpism isn't going anywhere

In recent years, many conservatives have expressed concern about free speech on college campuses.

There have been many instances in which left-wing activists and students have shouted down or otherwise physically prevented conservative speakers on college campuses, which speaks to Kirk's advocacy on this issue and his claims that right-wing speech is being suppressed. However, research also shows liberals are not immune from campus having their free expression squashed on campus.

Jeffrey Sachs, a political scientist at Canada's Acadia University, looked at all the cases in which a professor was dismissed for political speech in the US between 2015 and 2017. He ultimately found that liberal professors were fired more frequently for political speech than their conservative counterparts.

Correspondingly, Turning Point USA has faced criticism over a project known as the "Professor Watchlist," which works to "expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom."

When asked whether this endeavor might contradict his espoused free speech absolutism, Kirk in a December interview told INSIDER that his organization will "continue to fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish" but adds that students, parents, and alumni "deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls."

Trump's executive order on free speech is directly in line with Turning Point USA's perspective.

"This is very much a part of what Turning Point has been working on," a spokesman for the conservative group told INSIDER over the phone. "Behind the scenes, our team was working really, really hard."

"Nobody was highlighting the UC Berkeley attack until Charlie did," he added, while contending that there were "a lot of people who didn't want to tell this story."

Donald Trump Jr. gave Kirk and Turning Point credit for the order as he celebrated it in a tweet on Thursday.

"Great work by @TPUSA and @charliekirk11 who have been pushing this since the first time I met him years ago," Trump Jr. said.

FIRE, a nonpartisan group that advocates for civil rights on college campuses - including freedom of speech - has expressed skepticism about Trump's executive order.

"FIRE 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," the organization said in a statement. "We note that the order does not specify how or by what standard federal agencies will ensure compliance, the order's most consequential component. FIRE has long opposed federal agency requirements that conflict with well-settled First Amendment jurisprudence. We will continue to do so."

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