- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 3, 2016

A congressional committee on Wednesday heard testimony from students and education experts in an attempt to forestall a troubling trend of censorship in higher education.

The Ways & Means Subcommittee on Oversight sought to clarify Internal Revenue Service rules that some universities have interpreted as requiring them to bar students from using school resources for partisan activity.

Alex Atkins, a second-year student at Georgetown University Law Center, said the school barred him and other students from stumping for Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders on campus, citing its status as a tax-exempt institution.

“Our group was shocked by the policy’s implications for political expression,” Mr. Atkins said, adding that many students attend Georgetown under “the presumption of heightened opportunity for political engagement.”

“Colleges and universities across the country need to be reminded of their obligation not just to permit, but to protect, the vital free exchange of ideas,” he said.

Catherine Sevcekno, director of litigation at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said schools such as Georgetown are misinterpreting the tax code.

“Confusion over IRS guidelines is the likely cause of this censorship,” Ms. Sevcenko said. “General counsels are not going to allow political activity that they fear would endanger the school’s tax-exempt status. As long as the IRS guidance is ambiguous, censorship will win out every time.”

“Were the IRS to clarify that viewpoint-neutral allocation of resources for political speech does not endanger an institution’s tax-exempt status, it would be a huge step forward in preserving free speech on campus,” she said.

Also testifying before the committee was Josh Zuckerman, a senior at Princeton University and co-founder of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC).

Mr. Zuckerman said students who have criticized race protests on campus this past academic year have been bullied and intimidated into silence. 

The protesters have also lobbied the university to adopt certain resolutions providing safe spaces and cultural competency training, which Mr. Zuckerman said would “create university-sanctioned orthodoxies.”

“Those who defy these orthodoxies will be publicly slandered and labeled as racists,” he said. “This is not mere speculation; it is already happening.”

Mr. Zuckerman said acceding to the demands will only reinforce the notion that those who hold dissenting views need to be “re-educated.”

“These attempts to bully students into silence – and, when that fails, to demand the creation of policies that will have similar effects – are utterly intolerable,” he said.

 

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