WASHINGTON – On Thursday the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a hearing to confront the growing problem of restricted speech on college campuses.
Committee Chair Lamar Alexander, R-TN., and Ranking Member Patty Murray, D-WA, hosted the hearing and were joined by 20 of their colleagues including Senators Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, and Tim Kaine, D-VA.
In his opening remarks, Alexander pointed to two types of speech restriction happening on college campuses.
“Shouting down speakers isn’t the only issue,” he explained. “There is the question of political one-sidedness. Statistics are hard to come by but most everyone knows it’s true even at our most prestigious institutions.”
On the panel were Robert Zimmer, President of the University of Chicago, Nadine Strossen, a law professor at New York University, Allison Stanger, a professor at Middlebury College, and Richard Cohen, President of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
Stanger shared with the committee a glaring example of free speech restriction she recently experienced at her school when she was moderating a faculty sponsored talk with Libertarian Charles Murray.
“Dr. Murray was drowned out by students who never let him speak,” she explained. “We were forced to retreat to another location to live stream our conversation and he and I were intimidated and physically assaulted while trying to leave campus.”
Stanger said some of her colleagues were cheering on the violent protestors.
“Some faculty acknowledged publicly that they had not read a thing Charles Murray had written, but still knew everything they needed to know about him from what the Southern Poverty Law Center website had to say about him.”
The SPLC tracks what it deems hate groups and has come under criticism for including on its list such organizations as the Family Research Council and other faith-based groups that don’t support gay marriage.
Sen. Warren asked Cohen (SPLC President) directly for his thoughts on the topic at hand.
“Mr. Cohen, do you believe that powerful institutions of higher learning should ban people like Charles Murray, should ban people from speaking in public if those institutions, or their students, or you or I, don’t like what those speakers have to say?”
“Absolutely not,” Cohen answered.
The idea that free speech is a cornerstone of the American democracy was echoed by every senator and panel member at the hearing.
“Everybody is in favor of free speech but they have very different concepts as to what freedom of speech actually entails,” said Strossen.
The task for these senators is to consider what was said at the hearing and draft legislation to protect all free speech, no matter how unpopular it may be, on college campuses.