NAICU Washington Update

Campus Free Speech Focus of Senate Judiciary Hearing

July 11, 2017

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing last month examining current practices and trends related to freedom of speech at institutions of higher education. The hearing, entitled “Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses,” was held in the wake of a series of high-profile clashes between students who have protested—sometimes violently—against conservative commenters invited to speak at their schools.

In his opening statement, Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) was critical of how some educational institutions handle freedom of speech. According to Grassley, “…on too many campuses today, free speech appears to be sacrificed at the altar of political correctness.” Despite his suggestion that colleges and universities are not doing enough to protect free expression, or punish students who engage in violent protests, Grassley cited with approval institutions with policies that prohibit the suppression of offensive speech.

Senator Grassley’s comments were echoed to varying degrees by other witnesses and committee members.  This included several First Amendment experts who cited constitutional protections for hate speech, and students who testified about institutional restrictions on their expression of unpopular or controversial opinions. While all participants in the hearing emphasized the importance of freedom of expression, others noted that educational institutions must balance free speech protections with other essential values, such as student safety, inclusion, and respect. Indeed, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the ranking member on the committee, explicitly noted that colleges and universities have a duty to protect their students from violence.

The concerns about free speech raised at the hearing may eventually prompt legislative action. For example, Senator Grassley raised the prospect of enacting federal legislation to authorize individual lawsuits against private institutions that violate freedom of speech. Likewise, at least one bill on the subject has been introduced in Congress, and additional proposals may arise during reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Meanwhile, similar legislation is pending at the state level.

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