While Congress isn’t likely to take legislative action to safeguard free speech on college campuses as some have proposed, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed Thursday that school administrators must tackle head-on what they described as an increasingly serious issue.
“I hope the United States Congress won’t do what it often does and believe we’ve suddenly become wise enough to tell 6,000 colleges and universities what to do,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said during a hearing before his panel on the topic. “[That’s a] bad idea. But there should be some sensible way to allow speakers to speak and audiences to listen while still protecting freedoms offered by the First Amendment.”
The hearing comes as schools across the country have grappled with how to protect the right to free speech on college and university campuses, including for those who may harbor white supremacist, anti-Semitic or other hateful views. The balancing act encompasses ensuring the safety both of on-campus speakers and students who may feel threatened by their views.
Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called for a “national recommitment to free speech on campus,” setting the stage for the Department of Justice to take an active role in ensuring First Amendment protections.
The University of California–Berkeley has been ground zero during the latest free speech wars, drawing conservative firebrands like Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter for scheduled speaking engagements, all of which led to protests. Violence during a protest of a planned speech by Yiannopoulos in February led to the event’s cancellation, while a speech by Coulter also was canceled amid concerns about security.
“There is also the question of deliberately inflammatory speakers, and the protests and riots in response that push the freedom of speech to a limit that creates chaos,” Alexander said, cutting to the heart of the current debate and going on to reference recent racially charged and deadly violence in Virginia. “Sometimes these demonstrations turn into tragedy, as we saw recently in Charlottesville. If you’re a university president, what do you do about this?”
Alexander also referenced white nationalist Richard Spencer, whose speech at the University of Florida last week forced the school to shell out an estimated $600,000 in security fees and prompted Florida Gov. Rick Scott to declare a pre-emptive state of emergency.
“If you create an environment that results in tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in security costs, a speaker who can’t speak, and an audience who can’t listen, that’s not a very good result,” Alexander said.
Though lawmakers at the hearing agreed that groups promoting hateful or racist views have the right to do so under the First Amendment, Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat and the committee’s ranking member, emphasized the importance of political leaders, college administrators and others speaking out against those beliefs.
Murray and other Democrats blamed much of the current campus unrest on white nationalist and alt-right groups, arguing that they’re stoking and provoking students in hopes of being shouted down or creating unrest, with a goal of looking like free-speech martyrs.
Murray, in particular, directly blamed the Trump administration for helping to legitimize such groups.
“When you look at who we have in the White House right now – some of the rhetoric he has used and continues to use, some of the people he has hired, and some of the groups he has encouraged – it should not come as a surprise when we see an apparent resurgence of hate, bigotry, xenophobia, and misogyny on our campuses,” she said.
“For years, there has been a concerted effort to combat hate groups – in the courts and in the hearts and minds of the American people,” Murray continued. “As a result, these radical organizations had been steadily pushed to the margins of society. But … they found a voice they could rally behind.”
Witnesses at the hearing bemoaned the state of civic education among K-12 students, citing young adults’ unfamiliarity with the protections enshrined in the First Amendment as a problem.
“Obviously, some college students do not have a clear understanding of the First Amendment,” said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which labels organizations as “hate groups” but has drawn some criticism for its classifications. “We have a crisis of civic education in our country.”
There has been some movement in higher education to shine a spotlight on civic education.
On Thursday, the University of California announced the creation of the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, a Washington, D.C.-based effort aimed at exploring the “First Amendment’s critical importance to American democracy.”
The College of the Ozarks – an evangelical Christian college in Missouri – also said it is now requiring freshmen to take a military science class called Patriotic Education and Fitness. According to The Associated Press, the course aims to educate students on U.S. politics, the military and flag protocol, as well as skills like rifle marksmanship, map reading and rope knotting.
Without outlining next steps or a potential path for further congressional inquiry on the issue, Alexander asked witnesses at the hearing to continue their outreach to college presidents and administrators in hopes that their campuses can become better spaces for free speech.
“We live increasingly in a country where we tend to get our information from people who already agree with us,” Alexander said. “We don’t have as much diversity of information as we should have. I suppose college education, maybe a liberal arts education, may be a real antidote to that.”