Congressional Hearing on Campus Political Activity

March 3, 2016

Students and several experts testified in front of Congress Wednesday that many private, nonprofit universities are overly restrictive of campus political speech out of misplaced fear that their tax-exempt status may be in jeopardy. Among those who testified before the House of Representatives Ways and Means oversight subcommittee yesterday were Alex Atkins, a Georgetown University Law Center student who was barred from distributing pro-Bernie Sanders campaign material on campus, and Catherine Sevcenko, director of litigation for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which advocates for free speech on campus.

A letter from Georgetown Law sent to the committee and referenced during the hearing provided additional detail about changes the university is adopting after FIRE got involved on Atkins's behalf. The university barred Atkins's activity, it said, because current policy covered only organized student groups, not individual students, and because the policies "contained an overly cautious interpretation of the legal requirements governing the use of university resources" for student political activity. "We are adjusting the policies to make very clear that individuals as well as groups are able to reserve tables for organized activity and that all members of our community are able to make reasonable use of university resources to express their political views."

Congressional response to the testimony ranged from indignation at the thought of curtailing students’ free speech to unsubtle pivots toward unrelated issues and several frustrated questions about the value of holding the hearing in the first place. Melissa Click, Larycia Hawkins and the black students expelled from a Donald Trump campaign rally Monday all came up over the course of the hearing.

The hearing can be viewed here.

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