Republicans on the House higher education subcommittee painted a bleak picture of the state of free speech on college campuses during a hearing Wednesday.
“Far too many higher education institutions claim to uphold this right, accept funding from the American taxpayer and then purposefully turn their backs and betray us,” said Utah representative Burgess Owens, a Republican who chairs the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Subcommittee.
Lawmakers and witnesses at the hearing pointed to incidents on campuses where students disrupted speakers, the use of bias reporting systems and a perceived lack of viewpoint diversity among faculty, staff and students, among other examples, as they sought to show how universities are failing to educate students and creating a climate of self-censorship.
“Our universities are failing miserably at the one thing they are being paid exorbitant amounts to do,” said Cherise Trump, executive director of Speech First, a free speech advocacy organization. “They are failing to educate students.”
Trump said later in the hearing that college policies such as bias reporting systems have created a climate where students are afraid to share their political opinions openly.
“Students are operating in a surveillance-like state,” she said. “They are actively censoring themselves out of fear of espousing the ‘wrong’ opinions.”
Democrats, meanwhile, focused on the recent rise in state laws and proposed bills that would limit what topics can be taught on college campuses.
“I’m deeply concerned about the academic censorship at all levels and including in higher education that’s being advanced by several Republican leaders, especially at the state level,” Oregon representative Suzanne Bonamici said. “This is actual censorship, silencing voices you don’t agree with.”
Suzanne Nossel, chief executive officer of PEN America, a free expression group, said during her testimony there’s a major difference between students disrupting a speaker and state policies.
“To enact legislation that cordons off certain concepts, that says, ‘This may not be taught,’ if you venture into this, you might get into trouble, as an American. That is very dangerous,” she said. “That’s the tactic we see in oppressive countries around the world where there is no buffer zone between the hand of the state and what happens on a university campus.
Virginia representative Bobby Scott, the top Democrat on the full House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said in his opening remarks that Republicans on the panel were not interested in “protecting all speech.”
“Instead, today’s hearing is an example of MAGA Republicans hijacking our shared value of free speech and waging a one-sided campaign to protect conservative speech,” he said. “MAGA Republicans and the far-right news media are peddling empty catchphrases like ‘cancel culture’ and ‘woke’ to fuel mass hysteria around an alleged conspiracy by institutions to degrade conservative free speech. This deliberately hides the real, current threat to free speech on campuses today—that is Republican politicians’ censorship of college curriculum.”
Steven Bloom, assistant vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education, said in an interview after the hearing that campus free speech and academic freedom are bedrock principles in higher education—and they are “alive and well.”
Bloom acknowledged that there are examples where institutions have fallen short, but he said that the lawmakers’ accusations that there’s a widespread issue is “inaccurate.”
Republicans, in their questioning of witnesses, did not talk about the state laws but said they were concerned about the barriers to recognition for conservative and religious student organizations; the perceived lack of viewpoint diversity among faculty, students and administration; the increase in diversity, equity and inclusion administrators; and the rise in antisemitism on college campuses.
Ilya Shapiro, director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, said during his testimony that what happens on college campuses has broader implications for American society.
“We used to think that what happened on college campuses, ‘Well, that’s just those crazy kids. Once they grow up and [are] exposed to the real world, things are going to change,’” he said. “All of the sudden these students are going to grow up and occupy positions in society all over the place … If they don’t believe that ideas that they don’t like are worthy of hearing, then our whole constitutional order is lost.”
Likewise, Owens said that the nation’s future is at stake “when our universities do nothing to safeguard free speech.”
“This committee should explore possible legislative avenues to create the right incentives to remind universities of the trust we give them when we fund them through our tax dollars,” he said. “That trust is to not be an adversary to our sacred free speech rights but to protect it. My colleagues and I have the delicate job of considering how to ensure compliance through enforcement mechanisms that our law currently lacks.”
Other lawmakers and several witnesses agreed that Congress should take action to address the issue, though they didn’t offer many specifics on what potential actions could look like.
Shapiro said that institutions must instill a culture of respect for opposing views and end compelled speech in the form of diversity statements.
“But it can’t all be done from within, so we need external controls from state legislators and attorneys general, as well as congressional oversight tied to federal funding,” he said.
Many of the questions and comments focused on the recent incident at Stanford University between law school students and Judge Kyle Duncan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Students protested and disrupted the talk hosted by the campus Federalist Society chapter. Tirien Angela Steinbach, an associate dean of the law school for diversity, equity and inclusion, intervened and voiced support for the students. University leaders later apologized to Duncan and put the associate dean on leave.
“It is because of incidents like this and administrators like Dean Steinbach that students, both conservative and liberal, at Stanford and college campuses around the country are too scared to speak up in the classroom and share their viewpoints,” said Josiah Joner, a sophomore at Stanford University. “It has instilled angst into each student for fear of sharing their opinions. Anything they say might also be viciously condemned by these same university administrators; the best option is to merely stay silent and keep one’s opinions to themselves.”
Joner said repeatedly during the hearing that what is needed is university officials who truly uphold principles of free speech.
“Students come to the university setting to receive an education to prepare them for the workforce and challenges of the future, but if administrations continue to condone violations of free speech and fail to take concrete steps to ensure they don’t happen in the first place, the acceptance of denying free speech will continue to grow amongst students as they eventually become the next leaders in government and business,” he said.