Opinion

ROONEY: Universities Aren’t Protecting Free Speech — So I’m Introducing Legislation To Do It For Them

People wear the American flag as students and protesters gather at the "Free Speech Zone" located at the University of Colorado's Business Field, while candidates gather across the street for a forum held by CNBC, before the U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate in Boulder, Colorado, October 28, 2015. REUTERS/Evan Semon TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - GF20000037113

Rep. Francis Rooney Florida Congressman

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This quote, attributed to Evelyn Beatrice Hall, is the embodiment of our First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Unfortunately, this constitutional right is under siege on university campuses across the country.

Many colleges and universities use dangerous and insidious methods to suppress free speech. One example is “free speech zones”, which are specifically delineated areas on a campus where “free speech” is allowed, converting these words into an oxymoron. An absolute truth, a right guaranteed under the Constitution, should not become a negotiable, transient issue of policy. When we go down the road of dismissing or flouting elements of the Constitution we are damaging the institutions which have flourished under it and risk inviting similar attacks on other constitutional rights.

At the University of Cincinnati, freedom of speech was limited to a “zone” that comprised only 0.1 percent of their 137-acre campus and required up to 15 business days’ notice for students to use the space. Additionally, a UC student group was told its members could be arrested if they went outside the zone while collecting signatures for a statewide ballot initiative.

In an ironic case at Kellogg Community College in Michigan, students were arrested for handing out copies of the United States Constitution without the administration’s permission. How incredible is this? In their greatest hopes, Marx and Lenin couldn’t have been bold enough to conceive of this.

Although the examples above have become all too common, not all colleges have succumbed to political correctness. In 2016, John Ellison, dean of students at the University of Chicago, sent an email to incoming freshman defending academic freedom and free speech while denouncing the politically correct invention of “safe spaces.”

Recently, the Nevada System of Higher Education adopted a similar position on free speech, stating, in part “History shows that when institutions of higher education attempt to censor or punish the free expression of ideas, they undermine their core function of promoting rational discussion, inquiry, discovery, and the dissemination of knowledge. It is not the proper response of NSHE and its institutions to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

We need more examples like the University of Chicago and NSHE.

This assault on the First Amendment is occurring with greater frequency on campuses every day and is wholly unacceptable. For this reason, I have introduced H.R. 1672, the Free Right to Expression in Education Act. This legislation, which was first introduced in the 115th Congress by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, will prevent colleges from quarantining free expression and end the unconstitutional “zones” used to stifle student speech.

There are a multitude of other assaults on our constitutional right of free speech that must also be addressed, such as college professors that seek to indoctrinate and block free debate in classes, leading to groupthink — the phenomenon where the desire for conformity replaces rational thought. Banning conservative speakers from campus is another violation.

In combination with President Trump’s executive order cutting off research funding to schools that do not respect freedom of speech, we can stop this erosion of our constitutional rights. Higher education should be a platform for the peaceful but free exchange of ideas and open debate. Learning occurs when one’s beliefs are challenged and defended.  This is what the original idea of the university was all about.

In a climate of free expression our American ideals, as embodied in the Bill of Rights, will be championed rather than compromised. Zealously protecting our constitutional rights is critical for assuring the evolution of a generation of graduates who can think critically, accept differences of opinion and assure that our hard-earned freedoms are protected and nurtured in America in the future as in the past.

Francis Rooney (@RepRooney) has represented Florida’s 19th congressional district since 2017 and is the ranking member of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He previously served as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.