Defending Academic Freedom on Campus
John Boehner, March 17, 2006
Congress will soon reauthorize the Higher Education Act (H.R. 609), a bill aimed at expanding college access to lower and middle-income students. The federal government invests more than $70 billion in direct financial aid to students and families, and hundreds of millions of dollars more are provided to colleges and universities so that they may better serve their students. But for all of that money, many students are only getting half of the education they deserve.
Destructive and anti-intellectual forces that threaten free speech and independent thought have taken root across the country. College students are often harassed -- and occasionally punished - for holding "unpopular" viewpoints, or those that donít conform to the campus climate. These practices, and the individuals engaged in them, undermine the marketplace of ideas that American colleges have long fostered.
Itís easy to overlook this quiet assault on free speech and free expression that has plagued many higher education institutions in recent years. It is often couched in terms of "protecting" the feelings of one group from another, or prohibiting "hate speech" or "insensitive" speech. A popular method in the 1990s was the use of "speech codes" that would allow what was considered "acceptable" speech and prohibit that which was "unacceptable." While that practice has subsided, others have taken its place.
At Brown University in Rhode Island, 4,000 copies of a student-run newspaper were stolen in the dead of night because they contained "offensive" content -- or in laymanís terms, content with which the thieves disagreed. Citrus College in California gave extra credit to students who wrote letters protesting Operation Iraqi Freedom. And at other schools, students who held protests of affirmative action policies had their events shut down by administrators -- on one occasion because other students threatened the protestors and tore down their signs.
These are just a few examples of the sort of harassment and intimidation that dampens the free exchange of ideas on American campuses. America itself was built on intellectual diversity -- conflicting viewpoints, counteracting ambitions -- and this sort of environment only serves to harm those seeking a thorough education, or those looking to provide it.
In the fall of 2003, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) introduced a resolution that called on all public and private colleges and universities to create an "Academic Bill of Rights." The measure was supported by David Horowitz, a leading voice in the defense of freedom of speech, who has been calling for enactment of an Academic Bill of Rights to protect studentsí rights on college campuses. Horowitz has advocated similar initiatives at the state level as well, including right here in Ohio.
Last year, I met with Mr. Horowitz to discuss his Academic Bill of Rights. At the time I was Chairman of the House Education & the Workforce Committee. I expressed to Mr. Horowitz that the committee shared his concern about bias in colleges and universities, and we agreed that students should be protected against discrimination based on their political or ideological views.
After our discussion, I worked with Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-CA) - current Chairman of the Education & the Workforce committee - and Rep. Kingston to broker an agreement between Mr. Horowitz and officials representing many of the nation's top institutions of higher education. We worked on a proposal that would strengthen current Student Speech and Association Rights by enhancing laws that already exist. This proposal is included in H.R. 609, and is rooted in the spirit of both Rep. Kingstonís bill and Mr. Horowitzís Academic Bill of Rights.
The goal is not to tell an institution what to teach and how to teach it. The goal of the Academic Bill of Rights is to protect students against discrimination, and to encourage student speech and expression. Thatís our goal as well. In H.R. 609, we think weíve found the right balance between protecting student speech and association rights and avoiding any federal intrusion into institutional autonomy.
We want to ensure students are not discriminated against based on their viewpoints -- whether that viewpoint is conservative, liberal, or any other. Doing so is a crucial if we expect students to receive a full and rigorous education.
Congressman John Boehner is the House Majority Leader. Boehner, a Republican, represents Ohio's Eighth Congressional District, which includes Miami, Butler, Preble, Darke, and Mercer Counties.
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