WASHINGTON (CN) – Free speech advocates on Tuesday asked a House committee to consider legislation that would withhold federal money from public universities that don’t implement extensive free speech protections.
Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told the House Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice that Congress could make federal student loan payments contingent on schools ending “restrictive” speech codes and promising to crack down on students and faculty who disrupt speakers on campus or otherwise interfere with public expression.
“So long as students are permitted to silence the speech of visiting speakers or their fellow students without disciplinary consequences, the growing threat to campus free speech will never be overcome,” Kurtz said at a hearing of the subcommittee on Tuesday.
The hearing was convened to examine the state of free speech on campuses across the country. The four free speech advocates who testified raised concerns that so-called “free-speech zones” on campuses are increasingly tiny, and broad codes governing speech by students and student groups are eroding young people’s support for the unique right.
“Students are primarily taught that free speech is the argument of the bully, the bigot, and the robber baron and that’s completely inappropriate,” said Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
The topic drew bipartisan concern from lawmakers on the committee, although Republicans were more forceful and unqualified in their support for universities taking up stronger speech protections.
“Policies that limit free speech limit the expression of ideas and no one – no one – can be confident in their own ideas unless those ideas are constantly tested through exposure to the widest variety of opposing arguments,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said at the hearing.
A spate of recent campus protests that shut down conservative speakers fueled the hearing. The most notable – the riots at UC Berkeley over alt-right firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech at the school – garnered only a short reference on Tuesday.
Democrats at the hearing balanced their support of free speech with concerns about emboldening hateful speech.
“Some have argued that hate speech is not merely a symptom of underlying bigotry but also a cause of such bigotry and that hateful speech and images can create social realities that put minorities and women at risk, thus justifying limits on such speech,” Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said at the hearing.
Kurtz’s suggested legislative fix regarding federal funding appeared to interest his fellow panel members, though they warned against moving toward a “zero-tolerance” policy on curtailing speech at universities, arguing that universities should be able to enact specific, narrowly written protections against harassment.
Democrats had other concerns about the policy suggestion, most fundamentally how Congress could force those conditions on colleges without running afoul of the Constitution. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., also questioned the wisdom of requiring colleges to crack down on protesters.
“I’d have to look at the bill,” Cohen said in an interview. “I mean, I’m a great supporter of free speech. But something that mandates by law that somebody has to be punished and not having the university, the college, the school, whatever it is have discretion to analyze it in the circumstances in which it is and make a decision [without being] threatened . . . I don’t know if that’s what the law should be.”