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Under Biden, Education Department quietly shut down Trump-era ‘free speech hotline’

Two dozen complaints filed with hotline before it was shut down, according to newly released documents exclusively obtained by The College Fix through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit

The U.S. Department of Education shut down its “free speech hotline” without fanfare or public announcement in July 2021 after the communication channel received about two dozen complaints during its eight-month lifespan.

Copies of the complaints were handed over late last month by the federal agency to The College Fix after the filing of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in June to gain access.

In a statement Friday to The College Fix, the education department said the hotline became inactive as of July 30, 2021.

The hotline was an email address — [email protected]. It was created in December 2020, in the waning days of the Trump Administration. At the time, officials said the hotline would be monitored by the Education Department’s Office of the General Counsel.

Initiated by outgoing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, it served as a method for students, professors and others to file complaints if they believed their First Amendment rights were violated on campus.

Following the rollout, a department spokeswoman told The Wall Street Journal that every complaint will be reviewed, and investigations opened “where it is appropriate to do so.”

In April 2021, three months into the administration of President Biden, the email account began issuing an auto-reply stating the account would soon become inactive and to address complaints to the Office for Civil Rights, according to the Education Department statement.

The auto-reply also included links to the Federal Student Aid Feedback Center complaint webpage and the department’s contact and general inquiries webpage.

“The Department assesses complaints received through any communication channel—including those received by the [email protected] mailbox before it became inactive—and takes appropriate action consistent with its legal authority,” according to its statement to The College Fix.

In the spring of 2021, The College Fix requested all the complaints filed with the hotline between Dec. 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021. Subsequent inquiries to the department seeking compliance with the request were to no avail. The FOIA lawsuit was filed in June 2022.

On July 29, the Education Department released a 727-page document dump to The College Fix consisting of all the emailed complaints and supporting documentation the hotline received during its lifetime.

About two dozen were actual complaints, and the rest of the emails were either spam or test emails asking if the account was still active. The vast majority of the 727-pages of complaints consisted of supporting documentation, mostly student or faculty handbooks, codes of conduct and internal memos.

Names of the complainants and other identifying information were redacted from the documents by the department to protect their privacy. The documents do not show federal employees responding to the complaints with an emailed response from the [email protected] account.

Eleven of the complaints were filed by people who seemed to indicate they were professors or students. For instance, one person asked when the University of Virginia will be “held accountable” for the “harassment I endured that destroyed my career as a patent holding Phd.”

Another complainant reported there is a “shutdown of speech and lack of Academic Freedom and persecution of conservatives at Texas State University.” No further details were given, but the complainant asked for a contact at the department.

One complaint was fully redacted by the Education Department.

Of the remaining complaints filed with the hotline, 13 came from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a group that defends free speech on campuses. It included hundreds of pages of correspondence and legal documents to its complaints.

Of the 727 pages The College Fix obtained, 670 relate to cases filed by FIRE. These include free speech controversies at Louisiana State University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Susquehanna University, North Texas University, Catholic University, University of La Verne, University of Scranton, Duquesne University, Haskell Indian Nations University, Frostburg State University, John Carroll University, Collin College and Babson College.

In its 201-page Babson College filing, FIRE included an entire student handbook as evidence.

Many of these complaints have already produced several news stories in the last few years.

In an emailed statement to The College Fix on Monday, FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh said his group “received a request [from the Education Department] for more information about one case, but did not receive a substantive response to any of the other cases we submitted.”

“We have no indication that the Department ever took any substantive action in response to any case submitted to its hotline,” Steinbaugh said.

Steinbaugh said that when public universities “fail to adhere to their obligations under the First Amendment or when private institutions refuse to honor their promises of free expression, students and faculty have few ways to protect their rights. Lawsuits can be stressful and lengthy, accreditors are unlikely to intervene, and the court of public opinion is inherently hostile to unpopular speech.”

“The Department’s initiation of a program to help vindicate those rights was welcome and we’re disappointed that it was not continued or, to our knowledge, ever given the time to be fully meaningfully implemented,” he said.

Additional complaint emails from the general population included one individual at the University of Connecticut who reported that “the student government at UConn is attempting to delete an email sent to me from the Chief Diversity Officer implicating them in viewpoint suppression.”

“They are deleting it from their server tomorrow,” the complainant adds. There is no further information.

In another instance, a Binghamton University student complained about a professor who criticized their paper on the 2017 movie “Rumble” for being too fixated on race.

Several emails obtained by The College Fix had appeared to be sent to the hotline simply to test whether it was actually working and ask who was monitoring the account.

The College Fix also sent a test email in May 2022 seeking to determine if the hotline email address was still active. It did not receive a “failed delivery” message in return.

Among the emails obtained by The College Fix, one Education Department employee appears to be surprised that he has been put in charge of monitoring the free speech hotline email account a few weeks after it was created.

“So I didn’t realize until just now that the new ‘free speech’ mailbox had been linked to my Outlook,” an employee emailed to a superior on December 14, 2020. “Whoops!” he added.

“As a result, I haven’t been monitoring it and only just saw the email below,” he wrote. “Do you know who I ought be directing these types of messages (or if that’s something I’m supposed to do)?”

“OMG! That’s crazy!” answered his coworker. “I don’t know who made this determination.”

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About the Author
Senior Reporter
Christian focuses on investigative, enterprise and analysis reporting. He is the author of "1916: The Blog" and has spent time as a political columnist at USA Today, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and National Review Online. His op-eds have been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, City Journal, Weekly Standard and National Review. He has also been a frequent guest on political television and radio shows. He holds a master’s degree in political science from Marquette University and lives in Madison, Wisconsin.