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HEARING: Roskam Opening Statement at Subcommittee Hearing on Protecting the Free Exchange of Ideas on College Campuses

March 02, 2016

WASHINGTON, D.C.- Today, Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Peter Roskam (R-IL) delivered the following opening statement during an Oversight hearing on Protecting the Free Exchange of Ideas on College Campuses.

Remarks as prepared for delivery:

“Welcome to our first Oversight Subcommittee hearing of 2016.

“Today, we are going to examine how tax-exempt colleges and universities are suppressing the free exchange of ideas on campus. Specifically, we’re going to focus on prohibitions on student use of campus resources for political activity, the adoption of restrictive speech codes, and incidents when administrators or students have silenced other students for seeking to engage in the exchange of opposing ideas.

“Every single year, American taxpayers give colleges and universities billions of dollars worth of tax breaks. As a nation, we believe education is an extremely valuable public good. But is this bargain truly benefiting the American taxpayers—or the students—when colleges suppress speech on campus?

“Most colleges and universities—both public and private—are either tax-exempt organizations themselves under Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3), or have separate endowments that are (c)(3)’s. Under these provisions of tax law, taxpayers give financial benefits to schools based on the educational value they offer our society. When colleges and universities suppress speech, however, we have to question whether that educational mission is really being fulfilled.

“Almost all institutions of higher education explicitly pledge their support for unfettered academic exploration and freedom of expression in their advertising and school policies. But every day, we learn of new ways these schools are shutting down the marketplace of ideas on campus. Schools enact speech codes to stop teasing and require the reporting of “micro-aggressions.” Students shout down speakers because they disagree with the ideas they’re hearing presented. Colleges force students who want to advocate for a particular position to do so only while standing in a tiny, designated “free speech zone” in the campus boondocks, and only if they have made a reservation days or weeks in advance.

“One situation that really caught this Subcommittee’s attention was the case of one of our witnesses: when Alexander Atkins wanted to pass out political campaign flyers on his campus at Georgetown Law, the administration shut him down, arguing that his political speech could affect the school’s 501(c)(3) status. But Mr. Atkins’s persistence has paid off: Georgetown is currently working to revise its policies—and by unanimous consent, I’ll enter into the record the letter Georgetown sent Ranking Member Lewis and me acknowledging the faults in their previous free speech policies and outlining steps they are taking to reform them so students like Alex, regardless of their points of view, 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, not only allowing, but encouraging students to compare, reason, discuss, and debate ideas in the search for truth. Along the way, we hope this educational environment will help students build character, hone their values, and strengthen virtues like compassion, maturity, and tolerance. In a word, we hope that college helps shape our young adults into the kind of positively contributing members of society who are equipped with the skills they’ll need to achieve their full potential.

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

“In 2010, the now-late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia gave the commencement address at his granddaughter’s high school. He told the graduates that ‘[m]ore important than your obligation to follow your conscience, or at least prior to it, is your obligation to form your conscience correctly.’

“For students to form their consciences correctly, they must be exposed to a wide variety of competing ideas. Some of those ideas might be uncomfortable, unpopular, or even offensive. But education requires that students learn both to challenge others’ ideas and how to form and defend their own.

“Even here, in today’s hearing, I’m sure we’ll hear testimony that challenges the status quo and may even make some of us uncomfortable. But in the same way that challenging conversations are not a threat to education, they are also not a threat to democracy. In fact, our willingness to engage in challenging conversations is the very foundation of both.

“Personally, I’m interested in the issues before us today because I’ve heard from conservative students and faculty who were prohibited, shut down, or even fired when trying to express their support for the sanctity of human life, their opposition to illegal immigration or Planned Parenthood, their defense of our friend and ally Israel, or their view that our government needs to better honor the Constitution. I suspect some of my colleagues on the other side of the dais are concerned about situations where students and staff have had their speech stifled on a different set of views that they find meaningful. My hope is that we can all agree that whatever one’s particular views are, the American ideal supports, indeed it is founded upon the principle that we may each express our opinions freely. There is perhaps no institution where this is more valuable than the American college campus, where young minds are learning, growing, and maturing.”