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Witnesses tell House panel that speech is being silenced on college campuses 

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Washington D.C., Mar 30, 2023 / 12:00 pm (CNA).

A scholar whose talk was shut down at a university and a student who witnessed the silencing of speech on campus recounted their experiences at a U.S. House subcommittee on Wednesday. 

Manhattan Institute scholar Ilya Shapiro and Stanford sophomore Josiah Joner were among the four witnesses who testified before the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development. They discussed the absence of free speech at public universities and alleged bias against conservative and religious students and speakers. 

Shapiro, who wound up in a firestorm over a Tweet that criticized affirmative action, had his speech shut down at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco, formerly called UC Hastings. 

“Shut up, was the response, in more obscene terms, that I got from students at UC Hastings when I tried to speak there just over a year ago about my last book, ‘Supreme Disorder,’” Shapiro told the committee members. “They prevented the event from taking place, chanting and banging as if it was Occupy Wall Street.”

Shapiro said this has happened at a variety of events with different types of speakers all across the country. He argued the common factor is that “speakers presented ideas that some didn’t like.”

The problem, as highlighted by Joner during his testimony, is not restricted to students but is amplified by employees of the university. He recounted a recent incident at Stanford University when Judge Kyle Duncan’s speech was shouted down by student protesters who then received support from a high-ranking college administrator, which caused the entire event to be shut down.

Duncan was appointed by former President Donald Trump and has been vocally critical of the Supreme Court’s ruling of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. As a lawyer, he has defended institutions that restrict bathrooms to one’s biological sex, regardless of the person’s self-identified gender identity. 

“On the day of Judge Duncan’s Stanford speech, close to 100 students protested Judge Duncan, proceeding to enter the event and shout at him during his remarks,” Joner said. “The student protesters heckled Judge Duncan profusely, preventing the judge from speaking in what was one of the latest examples of the heckler’s veto, used to suppress free speech on our campus. They held obscene signs and shouted obscene remarks and Judge Duncan was not able to deliver his lecture.”

Joner added that an administrator, Dean Tirien Steinbach, took the microphone, condemned Duncan’s views, and defended the protesters’ actions. She was later suspended and wrote an apology for her behavior.

Joner told the panel he is concerned that the students are afraid to voice their opinions in this political climate.

“Students … are too scared to speak up in the classroom and share their viewpoints,” Joner said. “It has instilled angst into each student for fear of sharing their opinions. Anything they say might also be viciously condemned by these same university administrators. The best option is to merely stay silent and keep one’s opinion to themselves.”

Cherise Trump, the executive director of Speech First, argued that these problems are often institutional. Her organization has won lawsuits against colleges over policies that restrict speech. She said higher education institutions will sometimes broadly define harassment to include offensive speech or microaggressions as well as speech that threatens someone’s mental health or is humiliating without clearly defining the conditions for that metric. 

“I have visited dozens of campuses and spoken with thousands of students,” Trump told the panel. “Those students face an ever-growing, ever-present threat on campuses: that is, administrators, working to chill and silence their speech. … They take it upon themselves to adopt even broader definitions of harassment and discrimination. These policies completely disregard the federal guidelines that are meant to strike a balance between protecting students’ First Amendment rights while also protecting students.”

While questioning the panelists, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Michigan) brought up alleged discrimination faced by faith-based student groups. 

“Countless studies have shown that religious organizations especially improve feelings of belonging, cultural awareness, and academic success,” Walberg said. “Yet, we often see universities restricting these beneficial groups from organizing with examples from 37 states involving 93 colleges and universities and these are just the ones that were actually reported.”

Walberg introduced legislation that would strip federal funding away from higher education institutions that refuse to provide faith-based groups the same access to resources as secular groups. Although a current federal regulation, the 2020 Religious Liberty and Free Inquiry Rule, provides that condition on federal funding, the Biden administration has announced plans to rescind it. 

“I would have thought that you don’t even need a regulation for that,” Shapiro said. “I’m frankly appalled that this regulation is being rescinded. … I don’t think that you even need this regulation or frankly further legislation to make the point. You can just say, as long as you’re complying with existing Supreme Court precedent and the sense of Congress about … equal treatment of different student organizations … you don’t even approach any sort of line about going too far.”  

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has asked Biden to keep the regulation in place. 


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