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Free Speech on Campus Being Compromised, Students Testify

FILE - In this April 21, 2017 file photo, students walk past Sather Gate on the University of California, Berkeley campus in Berkeley, Calif.

United States college students warned Congress on Tuesday that free speech is being threatened across the country.

The testimony is in response to campus violence against controversial speakers, and “free speech zones” on at least one campus. Free speech zones are areas designated for protest on some campuses.

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Zach Wood, a student at Williams College in Massachusetts, said he has seen “considerable backlash in addition to administrative obstacles” since becoming president of a group called Uncomfortable Learning. That group invites controversial guests to speak on campus.

He said he fears that students at many colleges are only hearing a single liberal opinion on many issues.

Isaac Smith, a former student at Ohio University, spoke of a friend who was threatened with arrest for gathering signatures outside of the school’s designated “free speech zone.”

“There have been multiple cases across the country where students have been prevented from distributing copies of the United States Constitution … outside of their schools’ misleadingly labeled ‘free speech zones,’" Smith said. “Taken together, we know that administrators nationwide are stifling free speech.”

Disagreements on speakers

The hearing comes after several high-profile incidents on college campuses across the country in which invited speakers were blocked from speaking by administrators or had their events interrupted by violent protesters.

A crowd gathers around speakers during a rally for free speech April 27, 2017, in Berkeley, Calif.
A crowd gathers around speakers during a rally for free speech April 27, 2017, in Berkeley, Calif.

The most recent incident came in April when the University of California-Berkeley canceled preemptively a scheduled speaking event by conservative commentator Ann Coulter, saying the school couldn't control any violence around Coulter.

Richard Cohen, president of the advocacy group Southern Poverty Law Center, told senators he has “sympathy for the educators’ impulse to protect,” and encouraged administrators to teach their students to “counter speech with speech.”

“They recognize that harm does not only come from physical violence, that trauma and terror can hurt as much as guns and fists,” he said.

A month before the Coulter incident, a group of about 200 students at Vermont's Middlebury College shouted down conservative author Charles Murray, refusing to let him speak. As Murray tried to leave campus, protesters jumped on his car and assaulted a professor who accompanied him.

Cohen’s organization has labeled Murray a “white nationalist,” based on his research into a potential link between race and intelligence. He told Senators on Tuesday that students and universities “should not give racists an audience.”

White nationalist activity

According to Cohen, the recent bouts of violence come “against a backdrop of increased white nationalist activity” on college campuses, and so, he says, “it comes as little surprise that we have seen a strong backlash among students.”

“Since the spring of 2016, we have documented approximately 250 incidents — on more than 150 campuses — in which racist flyers were distributed. Nearly 200 of these incidents occurred after the November election,” he said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the judiciary committee, said he believes free speech is being “sacrificed at the altar of political correctness.”

“Many administrators believe that students should be shielded from hate speech, whatever that is, as an exception to the First Amendment,” he said. “Unfortunately, this censorship is no different from any other examples in history, when speech that authorities deemed to be heretical has been suppressed based on its content.”

Grassley said he is concerned school administrators will “take the easy route of giving in to student pressure to restrict debate,” but he said he was encouraged by schools like the University of Chicago, which recently adopted a policy to prohibit administrators from suppressing speech on campus that some find offensive or immoral.

“It calls for counter-speech rather than suppression by people who disagree with speech,” said Grassley.

VOA's Bruce Alpert contributed to this report.