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House Republicans to college students: Have you been censored? Let us know. Email us!

Seriously. The address is: [email protected]

House Republicans have called on students nationwide to email them stories of censorship in the wake of a subcommittee hearing on Wednesday at which testimony conveyed that colleges abuse their tax-exempt status as an excuse to restrict free speech.

Students — as well as faculty and administrators — have been asked to send in their suppressed-speech stories to [email protected].

The request comes as concerns over freedom of speech on campus had its day in Washington D.C. as lawmakers examined whether universities that prohibit students’ use of campus resources for political activity and enforce restrictive speech codes are operating lawfully under their tax-exempt status.

“Confusion over IRS guidelines is the likely cause of this censorship,” the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s litigation director Catherine Sevcenko told lawmakers. “General counsel are not going to allow political activity that they fear would endanger the school’s tax-exempt status.”

The debate among House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee members questioned whether colleges violate the public trust by not allowing students to voice political opinions.

The Hill reports that Democrats on the panel questioned why the committee was even addressing the issue, suggesting “it would be a better use of the panel’s time to hold hearings about the effect of budget cuts on the IRS’s customer service and about identity thieves stealing taxpayer information.”

But Republicans stood firm that protecting campus free speech is vital.

“Every single year, American taxpayers give colleges and universities billions of dollars worth of tax breaks. As a nation, we believe education is an extremely valuable public good. But is this bargain truly benefiting the American taxpayers—or the students—when colleges suppress speech on campus?” Rep. Peter Roskam, a Republican from Illinois, said at the start of the hearing.

He pointed out most colleges, both public and private, are either tax-exempt organizations or have separate endowments that are tax-exempt.

“Under these provisions of tax law, taxpayers give financial benefits to schools based on the educational value they offer our society,” he said. “When colleges and universities suppress speech, however, we have to question whether that educational mission is really being fulfilled.”

And Republican Rep. Mike Lee of Pennsylvania added: “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,” Lee said. “If not us, who? Who would hear you? Who would stand up for you? Who would defend you in the public place?”

Several students and professors testified at the committee meeting, including a Georgetown University law student who said was reprimanded for handing out Bernie Sanders literature on campus.

“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,” the student told the committee.

FIRE’s Sevcenko said private universities are obligated by contract to provide freedom of expression as outlined in their marketing and recruitment materials. She called on the IRS to issue guidance to tax-exempt universities to correct the issue.

“As long the IRS guidance is ambiguous, censorship will win out every time,” she said. “This subcommittee could be instrumental in solving this problem. Were the IRS to clarify that viewpoint-neutral allocation of resources for political speech does not endanger an institution’s tax-exempt status, it would be a huge step forward in preserving free speech on campus.”

Sevcenko also said the practice of colleges pointing to their tax-exempt status as justification for policies that silence speech is a growing bipartisan issue, The Daily Signal reports.

“[Colleges] were granted tax-exempt status because they have an educational mission,” Sevcenko told the subcommittee. “I think it’s deeply ironic that the universities, in an attempt to preserve their 501(c)(3) status, are in fact censoring people, censoring students, which is undermining the very purpose that they’re there for.”

Other witnesses pointed out there is a growing fear among administrators that they will lose tax-exempt status because of students voicing overt political sentiments.

“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,” Princeton University Professor of Jurisprudence Robert George stated in his testimony. “It makes learning impossible. It transforms education into indoctrination.”

After the hearing, Rep. Roskam told reporters he expects the IRS to provide guidance to colleges so students’ speech doesn’t risk an organization’s tax-exempt status.

Rep. Roskam’s office was contacted for comment by The College Fix, but no response was returned.

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About the Author
Michael McGrady --University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.