House Republican concerned about colleges stifling students' speech

House Republican concerned about colleges stifling students' speech

The chairman of the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee expressed concern Wednesday that colleges are stifling students’ political speech because they are incorrectly worried that such speech could jeopardize the schools’ tax-exempt statuses.

Through provisions in the tax code, “taxpayers give financial benefits to schools based on the educational value that they offer to our society,” Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) said at a hearing. “When colleges and universities suppress speech, however, we have to question whether that educational mission is really being fulfilled.”

Roskam asked students, faculty and administrators who have had their speech suppressed to share their experiences with the committee by emailing campus.speech@mail.house.gov.

Frances Hill, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, said during the hearing that “students can do almost anything” without jeopardizing a college’s tax-exempt status. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is more likely to be concerned about university administrators engaging in political speech without making clear that they are not speaking on behalf of the school, she added.

Catherine Sevcenko, director of litigation at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said that students are likely being censored because colleges are confused about IRS guidelines.

“As long as the IRS guidance is ambiguous, censorship will win out every time,” she said, adding that lawmakers need to communicate to the IRS that there is an “urgent need for guidance.”

Sevcenko also said the issue of censorship is a “bipartisan problem,” and students are being stifled for both liberal and conservative speech.

Roskam told reporters after the hearing that he’s interested in looking to see if there’s something the IRS can do to make it clear that student expression won’t jeopardize colleges’ tax exemptions.

“It seems like the letter of the law is clear, but for whatever reason, it’s not penetrating,” he said.

Democrats on the panel argued the free speech issue does not fall under the committee's jurisdiction. They suggested that it would be a better use of the panel’s time to hold hearings about the effect of budget cuts on the IRS’s customer service and about identity thieves stealing taxpayer information.

“Let me be clear. We have plenty of work do, and this is not it,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the subcommittee’s ranking member.

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) said the subcommittee is “searching for a problem where no problem exists.”

But Roskam and other Republicans defended a hearing about colleges limiting students’ free expression.

“To say that we don’t have a role here is disingenuous,” said Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.).

Roskam said the subcommittee will conduct inquiries of the IRS in the future.