NAICU Washington Update

House Holds Hearing on Campus Free Speech

June 05, 2018

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing to address issues of free speech and debated whether institutions of higher education are suppressing freedom of speech on campus. The hearing followed a similar session held last year.
The hearing was convened by two subcommittees of the Oversight Committee: the Subcommittee on Healthcare, Benefits, and Administrative Rules and the Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Affairs. In opening statements, the Chairmen of each subcommittee – Representatives Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Gary J. Palmer (R-AL), respectively – criticized institutions of higher education for limiting conservative voices. In particular, Rep. Jordan asserted that “at many institutions, students and faculty are forced into self-censorship out of fear of triggering, violating a safe space, committing a microaggression, or being targeted by bias-response teams.” Similarly, Rep. Palmer asserted that “only one point of view gets expressed” on college campuses.
Democrats on the committee pushed back against these claims. Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), the Ranking Member on the Healthcare, Benefits, and Administrative Rules Subcommittee, noted that there has recently been a decrease in reported incidents of suppressed speech. He also cited hate groups as a significant challenge to free speech on campuses. Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD), the Ranking Member on the Intergovernmental Affairs Subcommittee, echoed these sentiments, questioning “what reasonable steps may [college presidents] take to maintain peace on campus while still respecting freedom of expression?” He also noted the hypocrisy of both the left and the right when it comes to freedom of speech, arguing that “everyone defends only the speech they support.”
Several witnesses also testified at the hearing. Although much of the discussion focused on freedom of speech at public universities, two witnesses discussed the experience of private universities. One witness, Allison Stanger, a professor at Middlebury College, described an incident in which she was injured during a student protest of speaker Charles Murray. Arguing that “we need reason to combat the excesses of the extreme right and the extreme left,” Stanger called on college administrators, professors, students, and even legislators to embrace civil discourse. Meanwhile, Dr. Robert P. George, a conservative scholar at Princeton University, identified an unwillingness to listen to contrary opinions as a significant threat to higher education and argued that a greater diversity of viewpoints is needed in academia.
Freedom of speech on college campuses is currently a topic of major interest in Congress. During the past year, Congress has held several hearings on this topic, as well as raised the prospect of legislating on the subject.

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