- - Wednesday, October 25, 2017

America has the greatest universities and colleges in the world. They are a magnet for students coming from abroad and they have been an engine for technological innovation, economic growth and intellectual progress.

The key to success of American higher education has been a boundless freedom of thought and expression. In fashioning the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson insisted that the new university would be governed not by any religious orthodoxy but by a robust commitment to reason and free inquiry. The center of his university would be not a chapel but a library.

Since Jefferson’s time, many university officials have tried to impose censorship and closed systems of political or religious correctness on their student bodies. But freedom has usually won out in the end, and the Supreme Court has strongly protected academic freedom and wide-open discourse on campus.

Yet, today, many universities and colleges are trying to confine First Amendment political discussion to so-called “free speech zones,” which is pretty close to being an oxymoron. In America, the whole country is defined by the First Amendment as a free speech zone, and political expression and assembly may not be quarantined to tiny plots of land on the outskirts of campus.

But lots of colleges and universities are using “free speech zones” to crack down on unwanted speech that takes place elsewhere on campus. Students advocating animal rights, Second Amendment rights, and skepticism of spying by the National Security Agency have all been the targets of censorship over the last few years for not staying quiet about politics outside the free speech zone.

In September of last year, two students from the Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Michigan, were arrested for handing out copies of the Constitution while talking with their fellow students on a sidewalk. In March of this year, a student sued Los Angeles Pierce College and the Los Angeles Community College District after he was told he could not distribute Spanish-language copies of the Constitution on campus unless he was standing in the college’s free speech zone, which comprises less than one-ten thousandth of the total area of Pierce College’s 426-acre campus.

Other colleges and universities have used aggressive enforcement of overly broad and vague “speech codes” to police and punish student expression. Whether these codes have been used against anti-war protesters, anti-apartheid marchers or anti-PC speakers, they are a menace to democratic freedom. To be sure, students may not commit violence against people or property and they may not threaten the safety and security of other students, but if they are on the campus green, they have a right to engage in speech that offends other people.

These are times of great division and danger. One thing all of us can and must hang on to — conservatives and liberals alike — is the Constitution and its founding values. That’s why we’ve co-sponsored a bipartisan resolution reaffirming students’ First Amendment rights on college campuses. We believe that institutions of higher education should facilitate respectful debate, freedom of expression and open exchange of ideas.

When white supremacists and neo-Nazi skinheads descended on Jefferson’s beloved University of Virginia last month, they targeted the Founder who embodied our national commitment to equality, freedom and progress through scientific reason and debate.

It was stirring indeed to see a few dozen Virginia students guard the statue of Jefferson against the racist mob that came to trample these values. We hope university administrators will stand with them to protect freedom on campus. And we urge our colleagues on both sides of the aisle to join us in standing up for students’ First Amendment rights and co-sponsoring this resolution.

Rep. Phil Roe, M.D., Tennessee Republican, is Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. He also serves on the House Education and Workforce Committee. Rep. Jamie Raskin, Maryland Democrat, is the Vice Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee. He has been a constitutional law professor for more than 25 years and is the best-selling author of “We the Students: Supreme Court Cases for and About Students.”

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