President Bush signed the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act into law yesterday. Referred to by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as a bipartisan effort, the new law recognizes the importance of free speech and due process rights for college students across the nation.
Congress amended the law to include provisions stating that it was the sense of the Congress that "an institution of higher education should facilitate the free and open exchange of ideas" and that "students should not be intimidated, harassed, discouraged from speaking out, or discriminated against." In defense of due process, Congress added that college "students should be treated equally and fairly" and any sanctions of students should be imposed "objectively and fairly."
While "sense of Congress" resolutions are not legally binding, the author of these provisions, Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) explained why the amendment is important:
Colleges and universities across the country play a key role in preparing our students to be the nation's next leaders. As such, it is the duty of these institutions to promote and facilitate the free and open exchange of ideas among students, and not prohibit students from speaking out with ideas that are politically or culturally different. During a time where it seems natural to take political sides, my provision protects free speech in an environment where it is most important that this freedom be preserved-the college classroom.
The bipartisan support for this law demonstrates the American public's strong commitment to its universities operating as a free marketplace of ideas. The fact that Congress felt a need to add this language to the Higher Education Act illustrates that while the public is devoted to these core principles, the academy has too often strayed from them (as FIRE is well aware), and needed to be reminded of their importance.
Congress' strong words add to those of the federal judiciary in urging universities to live up to their unique and important role in society. Hopefully, universities will listen, and re-commit themselves to fostering open campuses where ideas can be exchanged freely without threat or sanction.