Colleges and universities are supposed to be places where students can engage in intellectual, social, and political discourse. Free expression lies at the heart of their educational mission – a mission that grants them tax-exempt status. That’s why members of the Ways and Means Committee are so troubled to find that many higher education institutions are using their tax exemption as an excuse to stifle the free exchange of ideas on campus.
Today, members of the Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee held a hearing to examine how some tax-exempt colleges and universities limit students’ expression and the negative implications such campus environments can have for society.
As Chairman Peter Roskam (R-IL) said:
“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.”
During the hearing, Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY) questioned Georgetown University law student Alexander Atkins who was recently prohibited from campaigning on campus in support of Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Rep. Reed said:
“Mr. Atkins, you’re a Bernie Sanders supporter. You ‘feel the Bern.’ I’m on the other side of the aisle. I don’t ‘feel the Bern.’ But I respect your position, and I respect your right to have that position.”
When Rep. Reed asked how Mr. Atkins was personally affected by the university’s overly restrictive policies, Mr. Atkins answered:
“Georgetown’s presence in the nation’s capital was a big draw for me to come to law school at Georgetown. I’ve always been interested in politics and I thought, what better place to study law than in the political center of our country and have as much exposure to politics while I’m studying law as possible …
“We assumed this would be activity the school would appreciate … The school makes clear in most of its promotional materials and in speeches given by administrators that Georgetown’s presence in Washington, D.C. should be a draw to its students.”
As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education litigation director Catherine Sevcenko explained to members, private institutions like Georgetown are contractually bound to the promises of free expression they advertise in marketing materials and student handbooks.
When Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC) asked how preventing free expression on campus will affect our society, Princeton University Professor of Jurisprudence Robert George responded:
“The trouble with stifling free speech on campuses is not only that it’s unfair, is not only that it’s a violation of our precious First Amendment, in some cases where the First Amendment does directly apply, it’s also that it completely undermines the mission of the university. It makes learning impossible. It transforms education into indoctrination.”
Professor George continued:
“And then we all lose. Not only our students who are deprived of a true education [lose], but also the entire community, the entire nation [lose], because we do not get the benefit of a truly educated citizenry.”
Explaining the importance of today’s hearing, and why Ways and Means must further investigate this issue, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA) said:
“I don’t care what college it is, private or public, all these folks are influenced some way or another by the tax code. So, I don’t want anybody to ever be confused about why we would hold this [hearing] today. If not us, who? Who would hear you? Who would stand up for you? Who would defend you in the public place?”
As Chairman Roskam concluded:
“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.”