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Senate hearing makes it clear: There is bipartisan support for free speech on campus

By October 27, 2017

Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions held a hearing called “Exploring Free Speech on College Campuses.” Providing testimony before the committee were Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago; Nadine Strossen, New York Law School professor, former president of the ACLU, and current member of FIRE’s Advisory Council; Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center; and Allison Stanger, the Middlebury College professor injured in a violent campus protest in March.

The witnesses each made compelling cases for campus free speech. “We have such a responsibility, including on college campuses to combat the hateful rhetoric, the hateful attitudes, the hateful conduct — including violence — that we are seeing,” Strossen said. “But I also passionately believe, based on research and experience, that the only effective way to . . . fight censorship, to fight violence, to fight disruption — because those are all manners of repressing speech — [is] to allow freedom of speech.”

Professor Stanger remarked that one of the reasons that protests at Middlebury College became violent when she moderated a discussion with Charles Murray was because:

Some students believed shutting down speech was a means to social justice. Some Middlebury faculty shared that view, thereby encouraging radical action. We can and must do better. We need to teach students to think for themselves so that they are equipped for democratic citizenship.

Committee hearings held over the past few months in both the House of Representatives and the Senate have shown that protecting free speech on college campuses garners broad bipartisan support. In this hearing, too, senators from both sides of the aisle expressed support for free expression. The committee chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander, said that “universities should be the place where people of different views may speak, audiences can listen, and many contrasting viewpoints are encouraged.”

Several committee members agreed with that overall proposition. In her opening remarks, Sen. Patty Murray explained:

Free speech is the cornerstone of our democracy. It is what allows us to disagree and debate political ideas without fear of retribution. It allows us to speak out if our government is acting in a dishonest, or unethical, or unlawful manner. It allows open and honest discussions of ideas new and old . . . . So there is no real debate about whether there should be free speech on college campuses or anywhere else. I think that’s something we can all agree on.

Later in the hearing, Sen. Elizabeth Warren began her remarks by saying, “I think we all agree that free speech is not some kind of left versus right issue.” She asked professor Stanger, a victim of campus violence, “Would you agree with me that acts of violence are not protected by the First Amendment?”

“I absolutely would agree with you on that point,” Stanger replied.

Sen. Warren also urged against using censorship against political opponents:

I think it’s dangerous to suppress speech. First, suppression can backfire. Instead of shutting up individuals with disgusting views it becomes a launching pad to national attention. Bigots and white supremacists can make themselves out to be First Amendment martyrs and grow their audiences. And second, suppression suggests weakness. It makes us sound afraid, like we’re afraid that we can’t defeat evil ideas with good ideas, and I just don’t believe that’s true.

Sen. Tim Kaine also expressed support for campus free speech. “Colleges should be a place for robust speech and disagreement,” he said. “We don’t need to protect young people from free speech; we need to expose them to different ideas and have them exercise their critical faculties to make their decision about what they think is right or wrong.”

Citing the success of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement, Sen. Johnny Isakson remarked “free speech is — as I think Senator Murray said, the most important if you had to pick one — of all of our rights. And used in the proper perspective, and without abuse of using it in the proper perspective, can make fundamental change.”

FIRE is encouraged to see witnesses and senators broadly agree that protecting free speech on college campuses is an essential ingredient to meaningful higher education.