Bob Goodlatte: Colleges, universities should protect free speech

goodlattefourinOne of the first things students might read in their civics classes this fall is a document that outlines the freedoms and liberties we all hold dear. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble…”

This amendment prohibits the government, including public colleges and universities, from infringing on free speech and the free exercise of religion. The Founders of our country clearly understood this to be one of our fundamental freedoms as Americans. Yet despite these constitutional protections, speech-restrictive policies on the campuses of some of our nation’s public colleges and universities remain.

Earlier this year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released a report detailing a list of public colleges and universities that received a “red light” rating on free speech issues. FIRE classifies a “red light” institution as “one that has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” Examples of overly restrictive campus speech policies are being seen more frequently, including at a community college in California where a student was barred by administrators from distributing copies of the United States Constitution because the student didn’t seek prior permission.

In June, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justiceheld a hearing to examine First Amendment protections for students on public college and university campuses. As a follow-up to this hearing, I recently sent a letter to 161 public colleges and universities with a “red light” rating urging the institutions to update their free speech codes. In the letter, I requested that they respond with what steps the institution plans to take to promote free and open expression on its campus(es), including any steps toward bringing speech policies in accordance with the First Amendment.

Our colleges and universities have historically been some of the best examples of the First Amendment at work in society. However, recent attitudes towards limiting free speech and religious expression by public colleges and universities are troubling. Taxpayer dollars support these public institutions, and students and faculty should not have their First Amendment rights taken away or restricted when they step onto these campuses.

As we await their responses, I would urge the institutions that may be in violation of students’ First Amendment rights to update their free speech codes immediately. Policies that limit free speech limit the expression of ideas. We must ensure that First Amendment protections are being upheld across the country.

Bob Goodlatte represents the Sixth District of Virginia in Congress.


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