Last Thursday, a joint congressional subcommittee held a hearing, taking on one of the most contentious and controversial issues in the national discourse: “Challenges to Freedom of Speech on College Campuses.”
Responding to “failures by college administrators and rising intolerance among college students [that] have led to a number of disturbing and, at times, violent anti-speech incidents on college campuses,” the House Oversight Subcommittees on Intergovernmental Affairs and on Health Care, Benefits and Administrative Rules felt Congressional action was needed. They hoped “to identify the harms of infringing on the right to free speech on college campuses” and also “to explore recommendations on how to encourage and protect First Amendment rights, as well as intellectual and ideological diversity, on college campuses.”
Before the 9:00 a.m. hearing commenced, the hallway was packed with students, who would eventually have to be accommodated in an overflow room, eager to see Congress discuss a rare student-centered issue. Most students were not shy in voicing their opinion, with dozens sporting Young Americans for Liberty t-shirts and erupting in cheers when conservative firebrand and Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Wire Ben Shapiro walked past. Liberal students were few and far between. One attendee claimed, “I’m in DC for a week, and I wanted to see Ben Shapiro.” He added later, “Why would anyone oppose free speech?”
As the Republicans hold a majority, they picked four of the five panelists. In addition to Ben Shapiro, they chose Adam Carolla, the maker of No Safe Spaces documentary, Nadine Strossen, a professor at New York Law School an outspoken proponent of free speech, and Dr. Michael Zimmerman, a former administrator at Evergreen State University. The Democrats chose Fredrick Lawrence of the Anti-Defamation League (an organization dedicated to eradicating anti-Semitism).
With Freedom Caucus founder Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) leading the hearing, the Republicans, helped by their four chosen panelists, focused on the perceived threats to freedom of speech from liberal activists on campus, silencing conservative speakers and the alienation of conservative viewpoints. Jordan opened by declaring, “College is a place for young minds to be intellectually bombarded with new challenging ideas,” and went on to voice concerns that “on many campuses students and faculty are forced into self-censorship out of a fear of triggering, violating a safe space, a micro-aggression or being targeted by a bias response team.”
Shapiro used his opening statement to detail the three-step process—the assertion that an argument’s validity is determined by the identity of the speaker, that some arguments (especially those of a racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. nature) were akin to violence, and that real violence was needed in response to such speech—he contends drive campus opposition to speech. He insisted, “We must fight that process at every step.” Carolla saw the challenges facing free speech as due to a natural childishness among children who have never grown up, bemoaning, “We’re taking these kids and putting them in a zero-gravity environment, and they’re losing muscle mass, and their losing bone density.” His solution was for the faculty and administration to take charge: “We need the adults to start being the adults.”
While Lawrence and the Democratic congressmen questioning him all acknowledged that free speech was essential and must be protected, they focused much of their time on how speech can result in hate crimes and marginalization of disadvantaged groups. Striking a deliberately non-partisan tone, Lawrence claimed that challenges to free speech “come from the left, and they come from the right,” and he was sure to remind his congressional questioners, “Hate speech is protected. Hate crimes are not.”
Democratic ranking member Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), though conceding that he was “disturbed by people getting shouted down and shut down,” did voice concerns about hate crimes. His colleague, Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL), a former diversity trainer and director of minority studies, focused on the experiences of her guest Taylor Dumpson, a student at American University who was victimized in a hate crime involving bananas and nooses. She called on her colleagues to consider the silencing effect and lasting impact such hate crimes can have on minority students.
The hearing will likely not result in any major legislative changes. Congress has not been very productive of late and no consensus emerged about how legislation could address the problem. Moreover, numerous congressmen and panelists voiced concerns that if Congress legislated on free speech, it could end up doing more harm than good, as government interference runs counter to the First Amendment.
Throughout the hearing, the mood was generally cheerful, despite the seriousness of the topic. Indeed, many of the congressmen, at an event not televised or widely publicized, clearly felt free to act casually, often joking with one another. There were no partisan arguments or grandstanding.
Ultimately, the hearing addressed a topic that generated a massive student turnout and numerous congressmen who did not belong to either subcommittee coming to offer their opinion—the hearing ran well over its allotted time. Many of these additional participants were far-right congressmen. Dave Brat (R-VA), the insurgent who defeated Eric Cantor, used much of his time to issue a passionate defense of the liberal arts, while Mark Meadows (R-NC), the current chair of the Freedom Caucus, used his five minutes of questioning to demand that Lawrence explain his role as then-President of Brandeis in the university’s 2014 decision to revoke an honorary degree for a woman who declared, among other things, that Islam was a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death” and that Islam is the new fascism.
It was not clear whether there will be a follow-up hearing or what steps the House Oversight Committee intends to take. But, Congress is certainly showing a keen interest in college campus politics.
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