Republican–backed higher education bill seeks to protect free speech on college campuses

Sami Sparber

The 590-page higher education bill currently making its way through Congress comes with, as expected, lots of controversy.

The Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform Act is advertised by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce as a way to “help more Americans earn a lifetime of success,” according to a press release.

However, readers of the bill may be surprised to find that the PROSPER Act also contains various provisions to combat what some Republican congressmen perceive as hostility toward conservative beliefs on college campuses.

Under the bill, religiously-affiliated colleges could ban same–sex relationships and all schools would allow religious student organizations to exclude peers of a different faith from joining, according to The New York Times. The act also makes it easier for controversial speakers to make on-campus appearances.

“Free speech has been constantly threatened by universities and their staffs and it has been on the rise since the election of President Donald Trump,” said Caroline Chadwick, state chairman of Young Conservatives of Texas, in an email. “Conservative groups face a steady stream of unfair policies aimed at stripping away the protections the First Amendment guarantees us.”

Chadwick points to a recent instance in which UT’s YCT chapter faced an “extremely unfair” security fee from the University after former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn., visited on campus in November.

“The fee was intended to financially burden the chapter from hosting future events, and essentially showed that conservative free speech on the UT–Austin campus needed to be bought,” Chadwick said.

University spokesman J.B. Bird said the overcharged fee was a clerical error and the University has since corrected the mistake.

The bill requires schools to publicly declare their speech policies so the administration cannot change the rules depending on who is speaking — or else face free speech lawsuits.

Bird said UT’s free speech rules have been clearly posted online for many years. Bird also said the same rules apply for all speakers, regardless of whether people consider them controversial.

“We are a limited public forum designed for the faculty, staff and students of the University,” Bird said. “Someone who is not affiliated with the University can’t just come on campus and hold a demonstration or give a speech. They have to be invited by someone who is affiliated with the University.”

Among the bill’s critics is Marco Guajardo, communications director of University Democrats. Guajardo, a marketing sophomore, said the bill will ultimately cheapen public dialogue.

“When it comes to free speech and the idea that it’s being trampled, the entire argument is a distraction used to delegitimize students’ rights to peacefully protest,” Guajardo said.

Chadwick said the bill will help usher in a new era for conservatives on campuses across the U.S.

“The UT chapter’s right to free speech has been under fire multiple times,” Chadwick said. “We are excited for Congress to recognize the harshness certain groups are experiencing with our rights being threatened.”