Congress must act to protect campus free speech

Today, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) released a statement calling on Congress to include protections for campus free speech in the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The NAS statement is signed by more than 100 prominent educators and public figures concerned with higher education.

The logic behind insisting on the inclusion of protection for campus free speech is straightforward. Congress needs to stop funneling money to colleges and universities that promulgate unconstitutional speech codes and establish so-called free-speech zones. If it fails to do so, Congress will be subsidizing the suppression of free speech by public colleges and universities.

President Trump is addressing the problem through the executive order he issued last month on campus free speech. But, as Stanley Kurtz explains, the president’s executive order conditions a different pot of federal money — research grants — on speech protections at public and private universities. That’s a large pot, to be sure. However, it pales in comparison to the many hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in federal student loans and grants.

Moreover, federal student loans reach schools that undertake little or no federally sponsored research and thus will be unaffected by the executive order. Finally, as Stanley also notes, “an executive order can be peeled back by a new president, whereas a law has staying power.”

Unfortunately, congressional Republicans seem disinclined to address the assault on free speech at America’s colleges and universities. According to Stanley, this is due in part to the unwillingness of congressional Democrats to join them on this issue.

But Republicans hold the better hand. Free speech is a core American value — the core American value, I would argue. Thus, a recent McLaughlin & Associates poll showed 73 percent approval for a presidential order to protect campus free speech.

If Democrats want to swim against that tide, let them. Republicans can make this a campaign issue in 2020, but only if they hold firm and refuse to reauthorize the Higher Education Act unless effective free speech provisions are included.

If congressional Republicans don’t hold firm, the cost will be more than a missed political opportunity. America’s campuses are becoming ideological training grounds for a generation of authoritarian socialists. We are fast running out of time to halt this ruinous development.

Unlike President Trump, congressional Republicans seem oblivious to the danger. By the time they wake up, it will be too late.

I agree with Stanley that “to reverse our cultural rot, fixing campus free speech is the very best play we’ve got.” And the threat of denying federal funding — not just research grants — to colleges is the best play we’ve got to fix the deficit of campus free speech.

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