Senate Democrats demand crackdown on campus speech

Senate Democrats demand crackdown on campus speech

Can the federal government ban students from saying, “Build the wall”? One would think not, due to freedom of speech, and Supreme Court rulings saying that the First Amendment protects speech about political issues in public schools. (See, e.g., Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District (1969)).

But yesterday, Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and eight other Senate Democrats asked the federal Education Department to do so. They sent a letter to Education Secretary Betsy Devos, asking her to crack down on what they viewed as “hateful and discriminatory speech” and racial “harassment” in colleges and schools.

As a prime example, they cited students “chanting ‘Build the Wall'” on their lunch break. They then asked the Education Department to show its “commitment to enforcing the civil rights laws” by taking action against such “harassment.”

But saying “Build the Wall” is protected speech under the First Amendment. It may offend Hispanics (or liberals), but that doesn’t make it unprotected harassment.

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For example, a federal appeals court rejected a racial harassment lawsuit brought over a professor’s racially-inflammatory emails against immigration. It found the emails were protected by the First Amendment, and couldn’t be treated as racial harassment because they were not aimed at the particular Hispanic employees who sued over them. (Rodriguez v. Maricopa Community College District, 605 F.3d 703 (9th Cir. 2010)). Speech about immigration and how to protect America’s borders is core political speech that the First Amendment protects.

Even liberal Education Week took issue with some of the Senators’ exaggerations in their letter. The Senators alleged that hate speech is harming “the safety of students” and resulting in “heightened anxiety” in schools. But as Education Week noted, the reality is that “over the last few decades, the rate of violent and non-violent student incidents has declined in schools, and that students feel safer in school than they used to, according to federal data.”

Similarly, columnists like Paul Sperry of the New York Post have called into question the alarmist reports cited by the Senators, who claim there has been a “rise” in “harassment and discrimination” in America’s schools.

Those reports, issued by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), purported to find an increase in hate crimes and harassment in schools over the past year. But they did so only by treating constitutionally-protected speech such as “build the wall” as unprotected harassment, and by cherry-picking what data to include.

The SPLC has grown enormously rich by spreading fear through such deceptive reports, which cause naïve donors to give it money. It now sits on a staggering $320 million endowment, including $69 million in offshore accounts.

To create the constant impression of ever-growing hate and extremism, the SPLC has resorted to labeling mainstream people it dislikes as extremists. For example, it has accused moderate Muslims of being “anti-Muslim extremists” for criticizing radical Islam or the mistreatment of women in the Islamic World — as the Somalian-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali pointed out in the New York Times.

In addition to Murray, “[T]he Democrats who signed the letter are Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Al Franken of Minnesota, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. All are on the Senate education committee,” notes Education Week.

Only two of the Democrats on the education committee declined to sign the letter and its demand for censorship on campus.

Jerome Woehrle

Jerome Woehrle

Jerome Woehrle is a retired attorney and author, who writes about politics.


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