How serious are the free speech violations on college campuses today? That’s what a recent Congressional hearing was designed to discuss.
On July 27, 2017, two Subcommittees (the Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Affairs and the Subcommittee on Health Care, Benefits, and Administrative Rules) of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing titled “Challenges to Freedom of Speech on College Campuses.” The Chairman of the Health Care Subcommittee, Congressman Jim Jordan (R-OH), presided.
The hearing took place because of the protests (often violent) that have occurred on college campuses in response to invited speakers who some perceive as controversial. Many college administrators unfortunately have been unable to teach students about the value of free speech, and as a result, they don’t understand why it is important to allow controversial speakers the opportunity to talk. In addition, some college administrators have not allowed guests to speak by telling campus police not to remove disruptive protesters.
The hearing was focused on public universities because they receive billions of dollars each year from federal taxpayers. One example is the University of Wisconsin at Madison where protesters stormed the stage where Mr. Ben Shapiro, Editor-in-Chief at The Daily Wire, was speaking and called him a Nazi. This university received $890 million from the Federal Government or 31 percent of its budget in the 2015 – 2016 fiscal year.
The purpose of this hearing was therefore to discuss the harm from limiting free speech and how to encourage free speech on college campuses. The hearing also was intended to encourage more ideological diversity at colleges and hear from administrators about their public safety concerns, which have restricted speech.
There were five witnesses at the hearing: Ms. Nadine Strossen, the John Marshal Harlan II Professor of Law at New York Law School; Mr. Ben Shapiro, Editor-in-Chief at The Daily Wire; Mr. Adam Carolla, Comedian and Filmmaker; Dr. Michael Zimmerman, former Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at The Evergreen State; and Mr. Frederick Lawrence, the Secretary and CEO of the Phi Beta Kappa Society who also serves on the National Commission of the Anti-Defamation League. According to the rules, four were selected by the majority (Republicans), while the minority selected one.
The hearing began with a short statement by Chairman Jordan about the importance of free speech on college campuses, and he showed a video of clips from different colleges where riots were occurring and speakers could not give their presentations.
The Ranking member, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) spoke next about how government should not restrict what individuals can say. He expressed his concerns over a Wisconsin bill (Assembly Bill 299) that recently passed the state Assembly that requires colleges and universities to punish students who disrupt events:
“The policy must include a range of disciplinary sanctions for anyone under an institution's jurisdiction who engages in violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud, or other disorderly conduct that interferes with the free expression of others.”
Congressman Krishnamoorthi believes this type of bill is government intrusion and that the schools should take care of the problems.
That’s a nice idea, but many school administrators have failed to take care of the problem so far. They have only limited free speech and allowed violent rioters to destroy school property. In fact, the Young America’s Foundation, a national conservative organization with a presence at many colleges, has found that three times as many conservative events have been disrupted since President Donald Trump took office. That means almost half or 46 percent of events in 2017 were interrupted.
Chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Congresswoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC), also spoke about how free speech is fundamental.
Finally, the last speaker before the testimony began was Congresswoman Valdez Demings (D-FL). She raised concerns about hate crimes happening on college campuses, specifically at American University where nooses were hung around the campus after an African American young woman, Taylor Dumpson, became student president:
"Let's keep the focus on addressing some of the real danger, which are any acts of violence, attempts to threaten, intimidate, bully harass or violate any laws that this nation holds quite dear."
This crime was discovered on May 1, 2017, and the FBI is still investigating who committed the crime.
Professor Strossen, the first speaker on the panel, said that she supported student activism, but that she was disheartened by the hatred of free speech she saw. However, she thought the answer to the problem was more speech, not another law.
Mr. Shapiro next spoke about how free speech is under assault on college campuses and described his own experiences trying to speak:
“In order to understand what’s been going on at some of our college campuses, it’s necessary to explore the ideology that provides the impetus for a lot of the protesters who violently obstruct events, pull fire alarms, assault professors, and even other students, and the impetus for administrators who all too often humor these protesters.”
He said there were three beliefs that students had that were harmful: 1. Straight, white males don’t have valid arguments because they haven’t experienced discrimination; 2. If the male does speak controversially, this is a microaggresssion, the equivalence of violence; and 3. Physical violence is okay.
Mr. Carolla then gave his blue collar background and his experience when Dennis Prager, a well-known political commentator, and he tried to speak at Cal State Northridge. Carolla argued that the adults on college campuses need to act like adults and restore law and order:
“We need the adults to start being the adults. Our plan is to put them in a bubble, keep them away from everything, and somehow they’ll come out stronger when they emerge from the bubble. Well that’s not happening. Could the faculty and administrators on these campuses act like faculty and administration?”
After their experiences with Cal State Northridge, Mr. Prager and Mr. Carolla have decided to visit colleges across the country and make a film about their experiences called “No Safe Spaces.” The film will be released in the Spring/Summer of 2018.
The fourth speaker was Dr. Zimmerman. He said that racism is real and that colleges play an important role in helping students. He does not want additional legislation. He believes the problem is that individuals have been told their majors are useless and that tensions arise when minorities try to speak.
Finally, Mr. Lawrence spoke, saying that challenges come from the right and the left. He also does not want legislation and is worried about white supremacy. He is unsure where the line is between hate speech and hate crimes.
Although they did not state it, the implication of the last two speakers was that speakers like Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro were causing more hate crimes on college campuses these days.
After the testimony, the Members of Congress at the hearing asked questions. These questions were not surprising. Republicans tended to ask how to fix the limited free speech on college campuses and what the experiences of the testifiers were on campuses. On the other hand, Democrats tended to ask about white supremacy on college campuses and how to handle hate crimes. They both expressed support of free speech.
All were cordial until Congressman Gary Palmer (R-AL), who was at the Republican practice in Alexandria where he was shot at and Congressman Steve Scalise (R-LA) seriously wounded, asked Mr. Lawrence about an incident at Central Michigan University (CMU) that Lawrence mentioned in his testimony. At CMU, an anti-Semitic Valentine’s Day card was wrongly attributed to a Republican student group this year because the card was found in their gift bags.
Congressman Palmer asked Mr. Lawrence why he didn’t state in his testimony more clearly that the Republican student group didn’t know about the card. The testimony only said the creator wasn’t a student. Representative Mark Meadows (R-NC) also asked Mr. Lawrence why Brandeis University, where Lawrence was President, withdrew an honorary degree from Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her views on Islam.