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113th Congress May Leave Mark on Student Rights

By on January 4, 2013

Yesterday, the 112th congressional session came to a close and the newly elected members of the 113th Congress were officially sworn into office. I wrote last week about student rights issues that were before the last Congress. But until the session officially came to a close, it was still possible (albeit unlikely) for bills to pass at the 11th hour. So with that in mind, I write today to give the final update on the 112th Congress and a more detailed preview of the 113th.

For those of you who could use a quick refresher on Congress, any bill that has not been passed by both legislative bodies and forwarded to the President for signature before a congressional session ends dies. As a result, it’s not uncommon for bills that fail in one Congress to be re-introduced in the next Congress. Sometimes, a bill will be reintroduced with substantially the same provisions as the prior bill, including any amendments that were added to the earlier, failed version. Other times, a bill will be reintroduced with significant changes.

As the session was coming to a close, it was clear that the various pieces of anti-bullying legislation were not going to pass. The final piece of legislation that FIRE was watching during the last session was the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Reauthorization. The bill’s primary purpose is to combat domestic violence, but despite the fact that most of the bill’s mission has nothing to do with college students’ rights, there were a few provisions in the various versions considered during the last session that would have reduced the due process rights of students accused of sexual misconduct on campus. While FIRE took no position on the vast majority of provisions in any of the competing VAWA Reauthorizations, we weighed in on the student rights provisions in each bill. As the session came to a close, there were positive developments from a student rights perspective in both the Senate version and the House version, but there was also one troubling aspect in each bill. Undoubtedly, new VAWA Reauthorizations will be introduced soon, and FIRE will do our best to work across the aisle to ensure that students’ rights are fully taken into account in any final bill.

In addition to VAWA, this new Congress will also be asked to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA). Among other things, the HEA is the federal law that governs the administration of federal student aid programs. One important “other thing” in the HEA is a “sense of Congress” resolution in Section 104(2) that declares:

It is the sense of Congress that—

(A) the diversity of institutions and educational missions is one of the key strengths of American higher education;

(B) individual institutions of higher education have different missions and each institution should design its academic program in accordance with its educational goals;

(C) an institution of higher education should facilitate the free and open exchange of ideas;

(D) students should not be intimidated, harassed, discouraged from speaking out, or discriminated against;

(E) students should be treated equally and fairly; and

(F) nothing in this paragraph shall be construed to modify, change, or infringe upon any constitutionally protected religious liberty, freedom, expression, or association.

This resolution is nonbinding, but it’s a great expression of the free speech rights public universities (and private universities that promise such rights) must provide their students and faculty. FIRE will explore ways to ensure that the new HEA addresses current threats to free speech on campus.

Another interesting piece of legislation that will likely be introduced in the coming weeks is the “Know Before You Go” bill, which as currently drafted would require universities to report employment and salary-related data about their former students to the Department of Education (DOE) so that the information will be readily available to prospective students. FIRE hopes that Congress considers adding provisions that will help prospective students separate the schools that provide more robust civil liberties from those that do not. With this information readily available, prospective students will be better equipped to select schools that reflect their values.

As you can see, the 113th session promises to be a busy one for students’ rights and for FIRE. In addition to the legislation highlighted here, we plan on being ready to respond to any congressional bill that threatens students’ rights to free speech, due process, freedom of conscience, or religious liberty. As a nonpartisan organization, we will continue to work with people across the political spectrum to protect student rights. And as always, we’ll keep you posted on how the session unfolds here on The Torch!

Cases: National: Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization