Congressman calls colleges out for ignoring First Amendment

A senior GOP congressman is reminding public colleges and universities of their obligation to protect free expression in the wake of a report condemning many for restrictive speech codes.

Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte (Va.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, sent a scathing letter Friday to 160 public institutions of higher learning that have been singled out for imposing significant restrictions on the free speech rights of students and faculty, strongly implying that they should take voluntary steps to improve their policies.

“The First Amendment prohibits the government, including governmental public colleges and universities, from infringing on free speech and the free exercise of religion,” Goodlatte notes, “[y]et despite these constitutional protections, speech-restrictive policies in our nation’s public colleges and universities remain.”

The inspiration for the letter came from a recent report released by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), called “Spotlight on Speech Codes,” in which 55 percent of the 437 schools surveyed received a “red light” label for having “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” Among the public colleges and universities surveyed, 54 percent received a red light.

To qualify as a “red light” restriction on free speech, a policy must be both “clear,” meaning its consequences do not depend on how it is applied or enforced, as well as “broadly applicable to campus expression,” such as a blanket ban on offensive speech.

Goodlatte also references a Judiciary Committee hearing in June addressing First Amendment protections on American campuses, during which FIRE’s President and CEO Greg Lukianoff testified that, despite numerous and consistent court rulings striking down restrictive speech codes, “[t]he majority of American colleges and universities maintain speech codes.”

“Speech codes—policies prohibiting student and faculty speech that would, outside the bounds of campus, be protected by the First Amendment—have repeatedly been struck down by federal and state courts,” Lukianoff told the Committee. “Yet they persist, even in the very jurisdictions where they have been ruled unconstitutional.”

Goodlatte refrains from directly threatening congressional action to compel schools to comply with the law, merely asking “what steps your institution plans to take to promote free and open expression on its campus(es), including any steps toward bringing your speech policies in accordance with the First Amendment.”

Goodlatte gave the schools until August 28 to respond to his request. A House Judiciary aide told Campus Reform that they could not comment on whether any responses have been received to date, but said the Committee “hopes all the recipient schools respond to our letter and address the issues contained in FIRE’s report.”

The aide also noted that “the Committee will explore possible next steps on the issue” based on the responses it receives (or doesn’t receive, as the case may be).

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @FrickePete