Committee Democrats Highlight Importance of Civil Rights Protections During Hearing on Campus Free Speech

WASHINGTON – Today, during a full Committee hearing examining First Amendment rights on college campuses, Committee Democrats described how the Trump administration’s one-sided approach to free speech protections is politicizing and undermining the practice of free expression. Democratic members highlighted examples of the administration engaging in a partisan defense of free speech, while ignoring the federal government’s responsibility to support colleges and universities in protecting the civil rights of an increasingly diverse student body.

“It is troubling that the rise in hate speech and the embrace of partisan enforcement of free speech is coinciding with a damaging shift in how the Education Department views its role in defending students’ civil rights,” said Ranking Member Bobby Scott (VA-03). “Under Secretary DeVos, we have seen active investigation of claims of campus free speech violations at public universities brought by conservative activists, but nothing investigating the explosion in incidences of racially motivated hate speech or actions on campus.”  

The Committee Democrats also pointed to evidence that – contrary to the administration’s claims – today’s students overwhelmingly support free expression of ideas on their campuses.  A recent Gallup and Knight Foundation survey found that 70 percent of students say they prefer their college campus to be an open learning environment, even with an exposure to offensive speech. Only 29 percent of students prefer a campus where offensive speech is banned.

Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer at PEN America, a nonprofit organization working to defend free expression, testified at the hearing. “While questions of speech implicate power and politics, it is essential that free speech on campus not become a politicized or partisan issue. The First Amendment leans neither left nor right,” Nossel told the Committee. “An approach that appropriates campus free speech as a predominantly conservative cause risks compounding an already precarious appreciation of free speech among college students.”

OPENING STATEMENT: Ranking Member Bobby Scott, Committee on Education and the Workforce

TESTIMONY:  Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Office at PEN America


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