Washington should leave free speech on campus to state lawmakers

seethruedu - freedom blog


“Juuust a bit outside!” is a memorable understatement from Bob Uecker in the comedy Major League. Uecker plays an announcer for the hapless Cleveland Indians, and he gives the line as one of his optimistic calls after a wild throw from pitcher Ricky Vaughn (played by a young Charlie Sheen).

My Heritage Foundation colleague Mary Clare Amselem makes a similar call on the latest U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s proposal to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. She says lawmakers’ efforts to simplify student aid and the elimination of loan forgiveness are welcome changes, but the bill is off the mark when it comes to:

  • Washington’s monopoly on postsecondary accreditation (something a different bill, the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act, addresses);
  • Reducing the federal role in student lending; and
  • The use of fair value accounting to determine the true cost of student lending.

Amselem praises the effort at meaningful policy change but concludes the proposal is just outside the strike zone.

Another wild pitch in the House proposal deals with free speech on campus. The House HEA proposal makes statements opposing so-called free speech zones and requires colleges and universities to make annual reports about their speech codes at the risk of losing all federal funding.

Such an all-or-nothing funding approach is troubling because students and faculty that are not involved with a free speech incident on campus may be affected by the federal consequences. Also, new federal action in this area would be precipitated by some new form of federal oversight, not a comforting idea.

Congress has appropriately dealt with this issue so far by holding hearings to highlight the problem. Steady press coverage of these hearings (along with federal resolutions opposing so-called free speech zones) should remind state university systems and their governing boards that state lawmakers should look for ways to allow anyone lawfully present on campus to protest or demonstrate while protecting everyone’s right to be heard.

North Carolina lawmakers’ work to protect free speech on campus last summer, along with new Wisconsin Board of Regents’ policies, demonstrate that state and local policymakers have solutions at the ready that won’t result in ceding authority to Washington.

It’s early yet for most state legislative sessions, but Wisconsin, Michigan, California, West Virginia, and Nebraska lawmakers, to name a few, are considering proposals to protect free speech on college campuses this year. Congress should use the HEA reauthorization to deal with federal loans and accreditation and leave free speech on campus to state and local policymakers.

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