Congress considers measures to promote free press, free speech on campus

Wednesday, June 24, 1998

Two members of Congress are pursuing legislation to prohibit officials at public and private colleges and universities from punishing students who engage in lawful speech and press activities.


Some free-speech advocates say that, while they are pleased to see measures to protect speech on college campuses, they think the proposed bills fall short in assuring students their full First Amendment rights.


Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., last March offered the Freedom of Speech and Association on Campus Act to amend the House's version of the Higher Education Act of 1998. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, is offering the same amendment to the Senate's version of the act.


The House recently approved the amendment, and the Senate plans to consider it today or Friday, says Mike Tracy, Craig's spokesman.


Although the bills amend the Higher Education Act, they don't hold true regulatory power because they are “sense of Congress measures,” Tracy said. He said the amendment the bills would establish shows college and university officials how Congress wants them to handle free-speech issues on campus.


“The Higher Education Act essentially covers every aspect of college life,” Tracy said. “The free-speech amendment is pretty simple. It says the Constitution applies to university campuses.


“Larry is moving forward on this because there has been a movement to limit expression on campus and to crack down on those who think outside the norm,” he said.


Tracy said the House amendment passed with the endorsement of groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Christian Coalition.


David Greene, program director for the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, said that, while many free-speech advocates are pleased to see the legislation, “we feel it does not fully acknowledge the rights students currently enjoy.”


Specifically, Greene and others said that they are concerned with clauses in both Livingston's and Craig's proposals that allow punishment if a student disrupts or attempts to disrupt the educational process.


“We very strongly believe, in accordance with Supreme Court precedent, that sanctions may be issued only for actual and substantial disruption of the institution's pedagogical mission,” Greene wrote in a letter to Craig's office. “Even so, any such sanctions must be proportionate and narrowly tailored to address the specific disruption and nothing further.”


Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, says the measures have “the potential for being very positive.” But Goodman says he wishes the bills would include language specific to student media.


“There are prohibitions on punishments for expressly protected student expression,” Goodman said. “If [such a measure] passes, we would argue that it would also protect the student journalist.


“For public schools, this is largely redundant in that protections already exist under the First Amendment,” Goodman said. “On the other hand, it would give students at private schools with no First Amendment rights some protection. That's better than nothing, which is what most of them have right now.”