Bill aims to force private universities to also follow their own free speech policies
U.S. Senator Tom Cotton introduced sweeping legislation on Thursday that would require universities to support a variety of free speech measures or face penalties.
The legislation, called the “Campus Free Speech Restoration Act,” prohibits free-speech zones, creates a system to allow students to report First Amendment complaints, and allows the Department of Education to revoke eligibility for federal funding from public and private colleges that violate protected free speech.
“This bill fights back against campus censors in order to defend open debate and free speech, which lead us to truth,” Sen. Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, said in a statement.
The 39-page legislation is co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND).
Some observers suggest that with McConnell on board, it raises the prospect that the Senate may vote on it, and that it may become an issue for the presidential campaign as well.
The bill states in part that “no public institution of higher education directly or indirectly receiving financial assistance under this Act should limit religious expression, free expression, or any other rights provided under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”
It also calls out bias reporting systems as “susceptible to abuses that may put them at odds with the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.” The legislation could lead to a ban on such systems if it is proven they restrict freedom of speech.
A news release from Sen. Cotton’s office described the key goals of the legislation:
• Establishes the sense of Congress that students should be free to express and hold their opinions on matters of religion and philosophy on college campuses; that free speech zones and restrictive speech codes are contrary to the First Amendment; and that public colleges should not restrict the First Amendment rights of their students.
• Prohibits public colleges from restricting free speech and expression on campus, except in limited and viewpoint-neutral circumstances consistent with the First Amendment.
• Requires private colleges and universities that receive federal funding to be transparent about their speech policies and enforce those policies in a consistent and neutral manner.
• Creates a review process within the Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education to determine whether campus speech policies infringe on the First Amendment rights of individuals on campus, on penalty of losing federal funding.
• Creates a cause of action in federal court for the Attorney General or other parties to challenge restrictions on speech and expression on campus.
Conservative commentator and former Professor Stanley Kurtz praised the legislation in an article for National Review.
“With many public colleges still evading their constitutional responsibilities, it is time for the hammer to come down,” Kurtz said. “Only the prospect of losing federal aid can prevent public colleges from thumbing their noses at the First Amendment.”
“The very existence of unconstitutional restrictions on free expression at our nation’s campuses has helped to spawn an illiberal culture that is now tearing our nation apart. Tom Cotton knows this as well as anyone — and through direct personal experience,” Kurtz wrote, presumably referencing the outrage over a column Cotton wrote for the New York Times.
Cotton advocated for President Donald Trump to utilize military troops to quell rioting and looting that stemmed from racial justice protests.
In 2019, President Trump issued an executive order aimed at defending freedom of speech on university campuses by threatening colleges with a loss of federal funding for violating student’s First Amendment rights.
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