WASHINGTON (CN) – Senators griped Tuesday about the state of free speech on college campuses but struggled where to draw the line as a matter of public safety.
Spurred by a string of recent incidents at universities across the country where speakers have been disinvited or shouted down because of loud protests from students and outside groups, the Senate Judiciary Committee focused morning how school administrators should best respond to controversial speech.
Republicans on the committee were relatively unqualified in their support of colleges allowing all manner of guest to speak without being shouted down, saying anything else would violate the First Amendment.
“The Nazis are grotesque and repulsive and evil, and under our constitution they have a right to speak, and the rest of us have a moral obligation to denounce what they say,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said at the hearing. “The Ku Klux Klan are a bunch of racist, bigoted thugs who have a right to express their views. And we have an obligation then to confront those views, which are weak, poisonous and wrong, and confront them with truth. We don’t need to use brute force to silence them because truth is far more powerful than force.”
But Democrats, especially Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., were more cautious. Feinstein in particular expressed concern that some universities might not have the resources or training to protect students from violent clashes, especially when outside groups come to campus with the express goal of stirring up trouble.
She pointed to the riots at the Berkeley campus of the University of California that shut down the planned speech of alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. The dramatic clashes were fueled in large part by anarchist protesters who used the tense situation to their advantage, leaving the university in a difficult position, Feinstein said.
“We all want freedom of speech, I don’t want anything different than you want in that regard,” Feinstein said. “But maybe I live in a different world, having been a mayor at a tumultuous time, having gone through assassinations and understanding what happens in big dissent.”
The witnesses who testified before the committee, a mixture of students, administrators and lawyers, generally agreed that universities have an obligation to allow provocative speakers to come to campus, even if the content of their speech is offensive.
“Some speech should indeed lead to counter-speech, lead to criticism, whether by university officials or by others,” UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh told the committee. “But there is no and there should be no exception for supposedly hateful speech or speech of any other viewpoint, whether flag-burning or otherwise, on university campuses or elsewhere.”
Zachary Wood and Isaac Smith recounted their experiences at Williams College and the University of Cincinnati, respectively, after the schools enacted policies that speech-restrictive policies.
Wood, who is a member of a group that reaches out to provacative speakers, said the restrictions at his school came into force after the president of Williams College canceled a campus appearance by conservative commentator John Derbyshire.
Describing instances where universities receive information that might make canceling a speech the only way to protect students, Southern Poverty Law Center president Richard Cohen mentioned the April appearance at Auburn University by white nationalist Richard Spencer — which a judge forced to go forward after the university abruptly canceled it.
Cohen commended the university for putting out a statement condemning Spencer’s views, noting that “the First Amendment does not require universities to be neutral.”
He did, however, warn that forcing universities to cancel speeches lets people like Spencer claim to be “First Amendment martyrs.”
Both sides of the committee voiced ample concern Tuesday, but no member offered a concrete plan for Congress to step in. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., for one questioned whether the federal government even has a role in the matter.
Committee Chair Chuck Grassley spoke hypothetically in his opening statement about a law that would allow people to sue universities or their officials if the university receives federal money and does not do enough to ensure free-speech protections on campus.
The Iowa Republican did not, however, go so far as to endorse this idea.
Witnesses before the committee were also short on legislative solutions to the issue, though they warned that it is not a problem that will simply disappear.
“We have a problem in that too many people are unwilling to listen to ideas with which they disagree,” said Floyd Abrams, senior counsel at the New York firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel, who worked with The New York Times on the Pentagon Papers case in 1971.
“That is a problem which has only a long-term solution,” continued Abrams, “but it is one I suggest to you that we should really start to address now.”