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FIRE Asks Senate Appropriations Subcommittee to Deny Budget Increases to OCR

In written testimony submitted Friday to a U.S. Senate subcommittee, FIRE asked congressional appropriators to deny requests to increase the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ (OCR) budget until it “stops infringing on the First Amendment and rolling back due process protections” on campus.

On March 17, 2016, 22 Senators sent a joint letter to the Senate Committee on Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Service, and Education, and Related Agencies urging it to increase OCR’s funding from its fiscal year 2016 budget of approximately $102 million to a whopping $137.7 million for the upcoming fiscal year. As FIRE explained to the subcommittee in our written testimony, approving this request would be a mistake:

While FIRE supports OCR’s goal of effectively addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment on college campuses, we have serious concerns about the manner in which the agency is pursuing that mission. In pursuit of this objective, OCR has unlawfully ordered institutions of higher education to reduce the due process protections afforded to individuals accused of sexual misconduct and has redefined sexual harassment to include speech protected by the First Amendment under precedent from the Supreme Court of the United States. Until OCR stops infringing on the First Amendment and rolling back due process protections, the agency should not receive budget increases.

FIRE’s criticisms of OCR have been well catalogued, and our concerns about the agency’s overreach have been shared by both Senators Lamar Alexander and James Lankford. Accordingly, we told the subcommittee:

FIRE is eager to work with Congress and OCR to effectively address campus sexual assault and sexual harassment. But until Congress holds OCR accountable for its unlawful abuse of power and its blatant disregard for campus civil liberties, the agency will continue to both exceed its authority and take an inappropriately one-sided approach to addressing these issues.

In the upcoming appropriations process, Congress has an opportunity to send a clear signal to OCR that it will not allow the agency to continue to simply make up the law as it goes along. We hope the subcommittee heeds our call, and that OCR rolls back its unlawful mandates. If it does not, FIRE is currently seeking students and institutions who may be interested in filing suit to challenge the legality of OCR’s mandates.

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