Congressional Dems dismiss concerns about censorship on campus

At a congressional hearing last week, Rep. Peter Roskam condemned the “out of control” politically correct culture used to justify censorship at tax-exempt colleges and universities.

“Every single year, American taxpayers give colleges and universities billions of dollars’ worth of tax breaks,” Roskam observed in his opening remarks Wednesday at the House Way & Means Subcommittee on Oversight hearing on Protecting the Free Exchange of Ideas on College Campuses. “But is this bargain truly benefiting the American taxpayers—or the students—when colleges suppress speech on campus?”

Pointing out that most public colleges and universities enjoy tax-exempt status in recognition of “the educational value that they offer society,” Roskam questioned whether that reasoning truly applies to schools that restrict student speech to “free speech zones,” require the reporting of “micro-aggressions,” or allow speakers to be silenced when students protest their ideas.

One such example occurred at Georgetown Law, where administrators refused to allow a student to hand out political campaign flyers on campus, citing concerns that it could affect the school’s tax-exempt status. When the student protested, administrators backed down, informing Roskam in a letter that they would be revising their speech policies to ensure that students “can discuss issues important to them, debate views they disagree with, and fully participate in the learning process we expect at our colleges and universities.”

Yet Roskam also noted that “many other schools continue to wrongly invoke their 501(c)(3) status to stifle political speech on campus, especially during election years,” and declared, “let’s get something straight: Section 501(c)(3) does not require schools to prohibit student political activity on campus.”

Roskam received support from several witnesses at the hearing, according to The Hill, including University of Miami School of Law professor Frances Hill, who argued that the real risk to a school’s tax-exempt status does not come from students, but from faculty or administrators who make political statements without clarifying that they are not speaking on behalf of the school.

“As long as the IRS guidance is ambiguous, censorship will win out every time,” concurred Catherine Sevcenko, director of litigation at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), who urged lawmakers to provide clear, bipartisan guidance that schools have no obligation to suppress political speech by students.

The subcommittee’s Democratic members, however, refused even to entertain the idea of weighing in on the free speech debate, complaining that the subject does not fall under the subcommittee’s jurisdiction.

“Let me be clear. We have plenty of work do, and this is not it,” said ranking member Rep. John Lewis, adding, “I do not understand why we are here.”

Rep. Joseph Crowley even went so far as to dismiss the concerns voiced during the hearing, accusing the Republican members of “searching for a problem where no problem exists.”

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