WASHINGTON – University of Miami law professor Frances Hill recently testified before the U.S. House Ways and Means Subcommittee hearing on colleges stifling free speech over fears of losing tax-exempt status, an issue that's become a serious concern on and off campuses nationwide.
"In the marketplace of ideas, ideas compete," Katie Barrows, the communications director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), recently told the Florida Record. "Bad ideas are countered with good ideas, and students have the chance to weigh them. If students cannot debate freely and consider all ideas, they are not receiving the education that they are paying for."
Many colleges and universities fear that allowing students to freely speak about political issues such as the race for president could cost them federal funding, due to an IRS rule that does not allow publicly funded schools to endorse candidates or positions.
Barrows explained that the rule only applies to officials working for schools, while speaking as representatives of that school. It's a mistaken impression to believe the policy applies to students.
"No one would mistake the views of a group of students for the official policy of the entire university," Barrows said.
FIRE has released a fact sheet on its website meant to help clarify what can and cannot cost a school federal funding.
FIRE is also actively fighting back against the censoring of free speech in the courtroom, with its Stand Up for Speech Litigation Project. The "undefeated" national initiative fights to get rid of campus speech codes through targeted lawsuits. So far, FIRE has sponsored 12 such lawsuits on behalf of student and faculty who believe their schools violated their free speech rights.
"Overall, the initiative has restored the rights of over 250,000 students, and required colleges and universities to pay $400,000 in damages and attorney’s fees for violating the Constitution," Barrows said.
FIRE also communicates directly to the universities accused of such violations, attempting to educate them on the importance of free speech and ending censorship. Barrows cited a case where it worked with the University of Chicago, helping to revise its speech policies to comply with the First Amendment. Upon completion, FIRE gave the school a "green light" rating.
FIRE is also working with both state and national lawmakers, in situations similar to the recent Ways and Means hearing.
"Specifically, our lobbying team works with state legislatures to draft and amend legislation that represents FIRE’s stances on everything from due process protections for students to abolishing free speech zones on college campuses," Barrows said, adding that the team also meets with national lawmakers while appearing at committee hearings or delivering briefing packets.
All the work FIRE is doing has one simple goal -- for colleges and universities to follow the most fundamental of laws.
"The most essential change we’d like to see is for colleges and universities to align their policies with the First Amendment," Barrows said. "This the simplest way to ensure protection of free speech and expression."