Congressman breathes fresh air into campus free speech debate ahead of Trump's exec. order

A lawmaker from Tennessee is reintroducing a resolution that implores colleges to get rid of free speech zones.

Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) is seeking to remove free speech zones on college campuses with House Resolution 191 after a previous version of the resolution did not advance to the House Floor during the 2017-2018 session. The move came just days after President Donald Trump announced at the Conservative Political Action Conference his intent to sign an executive order to require colleges to support free speech in order to receive federal research dollars.

 “Colleges and universities were once the hotbeds of free speech and debate, and as a Vietnam-era veteran I saw this first-hand, even though I sometimes disagreed with that speech wholeheartedly,” he said in a Thursday press release.

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Roe continued to explain that in the 21st century, colleges use free speech zones, along with speech codes, to “drown out free speech.”

“Free speech zones and restrictive speech codes are inherently at odds with the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution; and institutions of higher education should facilitate and recommit themselves to protecting the free and open exchange of ideas,” the new resolution states.

Roe’s resolution also mentions free speech scandals on numerous campuses, as well as several Supreme Court cases. It cites Healy v. James (1972), which held that the First Amendment is entirely applicable to public colleges and universities and Widmar v. Vincent (1981), which says that “the campus of a public university, at least for its students, possesses many of the characteristics of a public forum.”

Former Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch introduced a similar free speech zone-banning bill, the Free Right to Expression in Education Act, in February 2018. The bill failed to pass.

[RELATED: Utah Senator introduces bill to ban ‘free-speech zones’]

About one in 10 schools analyzed by the free speech nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) have “free-speech zones.” A 2017 FIRE survey found that 39.6 percent of 449 schools surveyed have “speech codes that clearly and substantially prohibit constitutionally protected speech,” a drop from 49.3 percent of schools in 2016.

“I think free speech zones are ridiculous,” University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student Alexander Loannidis told Campus Reform. “We use taxpayer dollars to subsidize universities that largely push left-wing ideologies down our throats and then people can’t even dispute those ideas on a college campus unless they’re in a so-called ‘free speech zone?’ I am so honored that the man trying to fight those is from my state!”

Roe’s resolution currently sits in the House Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Education and Labor.

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