Lawmakers Step Into Prickly Free Speech Debate

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Full committee hearing on “Oversight of the U.S. Department of Justice” on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Full committee hearing on “Oversight of the U.S. Department of Justice” on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 26, 2017 at 3:00pm

The debate over free speech on college campuses continued on Capitol Hill Thursday with yet another hearing, but lawmakers don’t appear to be in any hurry to address the flare-up with legislation.

“Universities especially should be the place where people of different views should speak, audiences can listen and many contrasting different viewpoints are encouraged,” Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said at the hearing. “There should be some sensible ways to allow that while still protecting freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

The panel is just the latest committee to hold a hearing on free speech on college campuses, where university administrators and others face pressures between the right to free speech and containing what some faculty and students consider hate speech. 

So far, the only legislation proposed to address the issue is a House resolution to ban campuses from designating specific areas where students can protest or pass out flyers. The measure is sponsored by Tennessee Republican Phil Roe, and also has the support of Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin.

On Thursday, lawmakers heard from Middlebury College professor Allison Stanger, who was physically attacked in March by students after moderating a talk with Charles Murray, a libertarian scholar whose ideas have been labeled as “racist pseudoscience” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Nothing less than liberal education and the possibility of reasoned political debate is at stake in the debate over campus censorship,” Stanger said in her prepared testimony to the committee.

According to the free-speech advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 16 speakers have been disinvited from college campuses since the start of the year, and 24 were disinvited last year — the highest numbers since FIRE began collecting data in 2000.

A number of conservative figures, including political commentators Ann Coulter and former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos, have had invitations to speak canceled by schools after students protested. White nationalist Richard Spencer was blocked from speaking on several college campuses before his talk at the University of Florida this month.

FIRE legislative director Joe Cohn said he’d spoken with several members of Congress who recognized there was an issue but were not yet sure how to best address it.

“At the moment, Congress is still wrapping their head around what makes sense to do. There’s a lot of members of Congress who have spoken to me about free speech and a desire to do something to help the situation,” Cohn said. “We’re in the stage of trying to think through all the different possibilities to make sure we do something that is helpful to students no matter where they are on the political spectrum.”

Roe has floated the idea of halting federal funding to colleges that violate the First Amendment. At a July event at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Roe said that perhaps schools “don’t need federal funding if you don’t allow people to speak freely on your campus.”

But on Wednesday Roe said he doesn’t think the federal government currently needs to act on the issue. 

“I think it’s getting better,” he said. “As I’ve sat back and watched this thing, I think they’ve felt pressure from the media … I thought it probably would sort of work its own way out, and it’s kind of doing that. ”

The Justice Department might disagree. In September, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that the department would begin weighing in on cases involving campus free speech.

Since then, the department has filed statements of interest in two cases, both dealing with free speech zones. In September, the department weighed in on a Georgia Gwinnett College policy that limits demonstrations to certain areas and times on campus.

This week, the department submitted a statement of interest on a student who sued Pierce College in Los Angeles after an administrator told him he could not distribute copies of the U.S. Constitution.

“University officials and faculty must defend free expression boldly and unequivocally,” Sessions said in a statement. “Last month, I promised a recommitment to free speech on campus and to ensuring First Amendment rights. The Justice Department continues to do its part in defending free speech, protecting students’ free expression, and enforcing federal law.”