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EDITORIAL: Congress rightly weighs in on campus speech

College campuses are supposed to be places where students can study and openly debate controversial ideas. For decades, however, America’s colleges and universities have caved to political correctness and instituted campus speech codes that violate students’ First Amendment rights.

Now, the chairman of the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee is trying to determine whether colleges are squelching students’ political speech because of an irrational fear that such speech could somehow jeopardize their schools’ tax-exempt status.

As reported by The Hill’s Naomi Jagoda, during a recent hearing, Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., said that according to our tax code, “taxpayers give financial benefits to schools based on the educational value that they offer to our society.” Rep. Roskam added that “when colleges and universities suppress speech, however, we have to question whether that educational mission is really being fulfilled.” He wants college students — as well as faculty and administrators — who feel they’ve had their free speech rights violated to contact the committee by emailing campus.speech@mail.house.gov.

Catherine Sevcenko, director of litigation at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, says this type of censorship is likely occurring because IRS guidelines are ambiguous. She says there is an “urgent need for guidance,” and that both and liberal and conservative speech is being stifled.

Ms. Jagoda noted that Democrats on the subcommittee responded that Rep. Roskam and Ms. Sevcenko are searching for a problem where one doesn’t exist, and that even if there was a problem, it’s not the panel’s job to solve it. They argue that the panel instead should be investigating how budget cuts are contributing to the IRS’s customer service problems or ways to prevent identity thieves from stealing taxpayer information.

First off, at a time when colleges nationwide, both public and private, are cracking down on First Amendment and due process rights, it’s refreshing to see Congress acknowledge what’s going on. These campuses, even the private ones, often benefit from tax-exempt status and billions of dollars in tax breaks. And the public institutions draw a great deal of taxpayer funding via state legislatures.

It’s also more than interesting that Democrats are more concerned about the IRS having to tighten its budget belt than they are about the most fundamental right of being an American citizen — and a right that is of particular importance on college campuses, which are supposed to act as marketplaces of ideas.

Yes, Congress should work with the IRS to make sure its policies aren’t ambiguous, so that — as Ms. Sevcenko points out — colleges can’t hide behind those policies to censor speech. And once that’s done, if schools continue to deny students their First Amendment rights, then the federal government should remove those institutions’ tax-exempt status and deny them any federal funding until the issue is corrected. The mere threat of such a cutoff should fix the problem in a hurry.

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