Republicans on the House higher education subcommittee painted a bleak picture of the state of free speech on college campuses during a hearing Wednesday.
“Far too many higher education institutions claim to uphold this right, accept funding from the American taxpayer and then purposefully turn their backs and betray us,” said Utah representative Burgess Owens, a Republican who chairs the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Subcommittee.
Lawmakers and witnesses at the hearing pointed to incidents on campuses where students disrupted speakers, the use of bias reporting systems and a perceived lack of viewpoint diversity among faculty, staff and students, among other examples, as they sought to show how universities are failing to educate students and creating a climate of self-censorship.
“Our universities are failing miserably at the one thing they are being paid exorbitant amounts to do,” said Cherise Trump, executive director of Speech First, a free speech advocacy organization. “They are failing to educate students.”
Trump said later in the hearing that college policies such as bias reporting systems have created a climate where students are afraid to share their political opinions openly.
“Students are operating in a surveillance-like state,” she said. “They are actively censoring themselves out of fear of espousing the ‘wrong’ opinions.”
Democrats, meanwhile, focused on the recent rise in state laws and proposed bills that would limit what topics can be taught on college campuses.
“I’m deeply concerned about the academic censorship at all levels and including in higher education that’s being advanced by several Republican leaders, especially at the state level,” Oregon representative Suzanne Bonamici said. “This is actual censorship, silencing voices you don’t agree with.”
Suzanne Nossel, chief executive officer of PEN America, a free expression group, said during her testimony there’s a major difference between students disrupting a speaker and state policies.
“To enact legislation that cordons off certain concepts, that says, ‘This may not be taught,’ if you venture into this, you might get into trouble, as an American. That is very dangerous,” she said. “That’s the tactic we see in oppressive countries around the world where there is no buffer zone between the hand of the state and what happens on a university campus.