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Subcommittee Addresses Political Activity on College Campuses

NAICU Washington Update

March 3, 2016

The House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee held a hearing, to examine if tax-exempt colleges and universities are suppressing the free exchange of ideas on campus. In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman Peter Roskam (R-IL) said, “Every single year, American taxpayers give colleges and universities billions of dollars’ worth of tax breaks. As a nation, we believe education is an extremely valuable public good. But is this bargain truly benefiting the American taxpayers—or the students—when colleges suppress speech on campus?”

The hearing, “Protecting the Free Exchange of Ideas on College Campuses,” held March 2, was wide-ranging and varied between topics, including: students’ rights to demonstrate or support political candidates; the role of faculty in political activism; whether the tax-exempt status of the institution has any bearing on students’ free speech; and whether current laws governing colleges apply to faculty and students.

The Oversight Subcommittee Ranking Minority Member, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), stated his concern that the subject of the hearing was outside of the jurisdiction of the Subcommittee, and would be better handled by either the Education and Workforce Committee or the Judiciary Committee. In addition, Rep. Lewis reminded committee members that any legislation proposing to change tax law governing 501(c)3 organizations was also not the jurisdiction of the Subcommittee, but would need to be addressed by the Full Ways and Means Committee.

At its core, the hearing appeared to represent the continuing interest of the Subcommittee in examining whether non-profit colleges and universities are misusing their tax-exempt status, and whether these institutions are properly serving students – be it by providing enough tuition assistance from large endowments, or allowing the free exchange of ideas on campuses.

This is the same Subcommittee that organized the recent private college endowment inquiry that went out to 56 private non-profit institutions with endowments over $1 billion. In its latest examination of colleges, Subcommittee Members were alarmed over a recent incident at Georgetown University Law School where a student who did not followed institutional procedures was denied the opportunity to campaign for a presidential candidate. (Georgetown has addressed this issue, and informed the Subcommittee Members of their subsequent actions.) Additional incidents of faculty being fired for sharing religious or political viewpoints were offered by Members and witnesses, which included the student from Georgetown Law School, an attorney with a free speech advocacy group, and campus faculty and organizers.

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