NAICU Washington Update

Legislators Continue to Examine Free Speech on College Campuses

October 01, 2018

During the past several years, numerous members of Congress have expressed concern that colleges and universities are undermining freedom of expression on campus, particularly with respect to conservative viewpoints. In response, the current Congress has held multiple hearings on the issue.

Most recently, the House Education and the Workforce Committee held a hearing that examined First Amendment rights on college campuses. In her opening remarks at the hearing, Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) criticized institutions that have imposed restrictions on freedom of speech on campus, warning that “postsecondary institutions are functioning more and more like ideological echo chambers devoid of diverse thought.”

Chairwoman Foxx’s concerns were reiterated by several other witnesses, including Joseph Cohn, the Legislative and Policy Director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. In written testimony, Cohn cited restrictive speech codes, free speech zones, and overbroad anti-harassment policies as evidence of institutional policies that limit expression on campus. Cohn also singled out the efforts of some institutions to limit student participation in single-sex organizations, arguing that such policies limit freedom of association and should be barred by Congress, even at private institutions not subject to First Amendment constraints.

At least one other witness, however, recommended a more cautionary approach to campus speech. Citing the importance of free speech, as well as diversity and tolerance, Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America, suggested that misguided efforts to suppress speech cannot be addressed without examining “the underlying concerns of equality and inclusion that motivate them.” Accordingly, Nossel cautioned against adopting an approach that “privileges the speech of some over that of others” or that “appropriates campus free speech as a predominantly conservative cause.” Likewise, Nossel warned that disputes over freedom of speech on college campuses “don’t submit to a ready legal or regulatory solution, and to attempt one risks suppressing as much—if not more—speech than is protected.”

Notably, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions shared similar concerns at a recent Department of Justice forum examining free speech in higher education. Although Sen. Alexander urged colleges and universities to be more proactive in protecting freedom of expression, he also declared that “the federal government should not … pass a law trying to solve all of this…. I do not want to see Congress or the president or the department of anything defining what a speech should be or should not be, what you can say, or what you shouldn’t.”

MORE News from NAICU