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Illustration showing Virginia Foxx and Bobby Scott side by side

Republicans and Democrats in the House Education Committee are at odds over two First Amendment bills that would impact higher education institutions.

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The Republican majority on the House Education and Workforce Committee voted Thursday to advance two bills designed to end the use of “political litmus tests,” emphasizing a need to “tackle the plague of illiberalism on college campuses.”

GOP lawmakers say the legislation will prohibit public higher education officials and accreditation agencies from coercing students, faculty and staff to conform to “the correct beliefs of the day.” Democrats, however, say the bills are “totally unnecessary,” and are a “ham-handed” attempt to favor speech that conservatives support while eliminating speech they oppose. 

The first bill, known as the Respecting the First Amendment on Campus Act, would add various provisions to the Higher Education Act of 1965, including a prohibition on requiring faculty sponsors for student groups, a mandate that every college annually disclose their policies on free speech, and a limit on the security fees that colleges can impose on groups hosting potentially controversial speakers. If the bill were to pass, any institution that doesn’t comply would lose access to federal financial aid for a year.

The second, known as the Accreditation for College Excellence Act of 2023, would impose similar regulations on accrediting agencies. Specifically, it would ban the oversight agencies from telling colleges to support or oppose a particular set of social or political beliefs, such as the value of diversity, as a condition of accreditation.

Both were passed along party lines.

Representative Virginia Foxx, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the committee and co-sponsored the Respecting the First Amendment on Campus Act, said the bills are “a stake in the ground.”

“They say the committee will not surrender our schools to either woke ideologues or the ballooning education bureaucracy,” she said. “Public colleges should not adhere to a certain ideology, right or left, but rather maintain viewpoint neutral.”

Virginia representative Bobby Scott, the senior Democrat on the committee, described the bills as a “veiled attack on diversity and academic freedom in college curriculum.”

Both bills “will do nothing to improve the lives of American students, workers and families,” he said.

Response to ‘Degradation’ of Rights

Freshly released last week, the Respecting the First Amendment on Campus Act is the third in a series of GOP proposals aimed at updating the Higher Education Act. 

The Republicans’ previously approved amendments include an overhaul of higher ed financing and a requirement that colleges report more foreign gifts. Now, with these latest measures, lawmakers are turning their attention to what they see as the “longstanding and pervasive degradation of First Amendment rights” on college campuses.

New York representative Brandon Williams said it’s time to learn from history, comparing the current landscape of higher education to the Chinese rule of Marxist politician Mao Zedong. “Institutions are leveraging taxpayers’ dollars to fan these flames of liberalism,” he said. 

“Many students who are silenced feel like there is no hope,” Williams added. “This committee is standing up for them.”

“We might disagree, often fiercely, about different ideas and different topics,” said Kevin Kiley, a California representative and co-sponsor of the bill. “But we should be able to agree on the value of ideas themselves, especially at the place where they are most vital, and that is our institutions of higher learning.”

Democrats, however, cited numerous problems with the bill. Scott said the measure would “throw out” centuries of First Amendment case law and replace them with “a hastily defined drafted statute.”

“What the bill actually does is make public colleges and universities who could be acting in good faith … subject to monetary judgments and potential loss of Title IV aid,” he said. “So under the proposed bill, if a student wants to form a chapter of the Proud Boys (a white extremist group) on campus … the school would have to provide them with a pathway.”

Representative Kathy Manning, a North Carolina Democrat, said she worried that many of the provisions would make it difficult for college leaders to address recent spikes in antisemitism as it would impair their ability to take a stand against “humiliating and isolating” hate speech.

“How can we promote [this bill] while at the same time, just months ago, we were grilling the [presidents] of Penn, Harvard and MIT about their institutions’ failure to condemn Hamas and condemn the use of the phrase ‘From the river to the sea’,” she said. 

Manning proposed two amendments to address antisemitism concerns specifically. One would protect administrators’ power to suspend student groups that openly support a foreign terrorist organization. The other would oblige universities to not only disclose how they were protecting students’ First Amendment rights but also shielding them from discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Both passed.

Or ‘Solution in Search of a Problem’?

Lawmakers were also split along party lines on the accreditation bill. Republicans argued that the measure was needed to redirect the oversight groups’ attention to what really matters, especially at a time when trust in the value of higher education is dwindling.

“Instead of working with colleges to bolster their academic rigor, accreditors have used their time and attention to develop diversity, equity and inclusion standards, or other ideologically based standards unrelated to academic quality,” said Foxx. “No institution should be forced to adopt the social justice agenda in order to receive Title IV funding. This is the opposite of academic freedom.”

Democrats, on the other hand, agreed that the nation’s accreditation system, which sets the “gold standard” for quality education, is in need of what Scott called “significant reform.” But this bill, they said, isn’t addressing the real problems.

Scott described it as “a baseless attempt to inject culture wars into the ever-important accreditation system,” and would allow religious institutions to use tenets of faith to “skirt” core curriculum standards such as LGBTQ+ perspectives in psychology or health science courses.

“This proposal before us today represents a solution in search of a problem and fundamentally seeks to undermine our accrediting system,” he said.

Representative Suzanne Bonamici, an Oregon Democrat, backed Scott in his concerns about “sweeping exemptions” and proposed an amendment that would require colleges to publicly disclose when they receive an exemption from traditional accreditation standards. The amendment however, did not pass.

“If anyone wants to see what the core curriculum of an institution is, they can go to the website and see the curriculum for themselves,” Foxx said.

Opposing Opinions

First Amendment advocacy groups, such as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), voiced general support for the bill.

“The Respecting the First Amendment on Campus Act is a strong piece of legislation that would require institutions to adopt policies that respect student free speech rights,” said Tyler Coward, lead counsel for government affairs at FIRE.

He did express some concern about potential misinterpretation of Thursday’s amendments, but said fundamentally it doesn’t change FIRE’s analysis.

“Over the past few months, we’ve seen institutions and state leaders call for punishing student groups for engaging in constitutionally protected expression about the Israel-Hamas conflict,” Coward wrote in an email. “Accordingly, it’s entirely conceivable that some institutions will point to this amendment to justify censorship of constitutionally protected expression.”

Meanwhile, higher education advocacy groups say the legislation could weaken universities’ ability to respond to hate speech. 

Mark Becker, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, expressed his concerns in a letter this week. He said the First Amendment on Campus bill in particular would have “significant implications” for public universities that are unnecessary with existing legal precedent that provides “deep protections” for free speech while also enabling institutions to apply “reasonable” restrictions and protect public safety.

“We believe the bill would harmfully micromanage public university policies at the federal level, overriding the judgments of states and campus administrators who know the needs of their communities best,” he wrote. “The result of the legislation in some cases will restrict public universities’ ability to protect the use of property for the campus community and likely make institutions greater targets by outsiders who seek to disrupt learning environments.”

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