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Senators McConnell, Sanders talk about protecting free speech on campus; McConnell mentions FIRE on Senate floor

Senators from across the political spectrum dedicated an appreciable amount of time last week to talking about campus free speech. Last Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee hosted a hearing called “Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses,” in which both Democratic and Republican senators recognized the importance of the First Amendment and the protections it provides.

The next day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell mentioned FIRE on the Senate floor when talking about the trend of disinvitations occurring on campuses:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education estimates there were 43 reported instances of revoked speaking invitations or similar efforts to block speakers on campus just last year. That’s double the number recorded the previous year. It’s more than 700 percent higher than the six incidents recorded back in 2000. And the trend is getting worse, not simply in terms of the overall number of incidents but — more worryingly — in terms of the growing aggressiveness of those efforts. This year alone, there have been multiple, multiple instances of intimidation, violence, and rioting at universities across the country. There has been nasty and thuggish behavior aimed at suppressing speech. Sadly, it has often succeeded.

McConnell continued:

That should worry all of us. Regardless of party. Regardless of ideology. Hearing criticism of one’s beliefs and … learning the beliefs of others is simply training for life in a democratic society. It doesn’t mean one has to agree with those opinions, but no one is served by trapping oneself and others in cocoons of ignorance. That’s hardly the recipe for a free and informed society. To quote Frederick Douglass, “to suppress free speech is a double wrong [because] it violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”

Additionally, Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked about campus free speech on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, June 18. “There’s been a lot of protests on campuses when people come to speak. People have protested and said they shouldn’t be allowed to speak. Where do you come down on that in the context of this put pressure on free speech?” asked host John Dickerson.

Sanders responded:

I think people have a right to speak. And you have a right if you’re on a college campus not to attend. You have a right to ask hard questions about the speaker if you disagree with him or her. But why should we be afraid of somebody coming on a campus or anyplace else and speaking? You have a right to protest. But I don’t quite understand why anybody thinks it’s a good idea to deny somebody else the right to express his or her point of view.

FIRE is pleased that campus free speech has garnered so much attention this past week with senators from across the political spectrum. We stand ready to help McConnell and Sanders and any other legislators who want to better protect student speech rights on campus.

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