Tom Cotton

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is pushing for legislation to protect what he says is the core value of free speech on campuses from attack. Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA

Colleges and universities that violate students’ free speech rights could be stripped of federal cash under legislation being proposed by Sen. Tom Cotton.

Cotton (R-Ark.) told The Post that his Campus Free Speech Restoration Act would bolster free expression in American higher education.

“Colleges and universities ought to be centers of free thought and spirited debate — places where young Americans are exposed to all sides of an issue and sometimes hear things that they disagree with or maybe even makes them uncomfortable,” the senator told The Post.

Cotton said the time has come to reaffirm the importance of open dialogue as campuses across the country are shaken by free-expression controversies — from the University of South Carolina refusing to recognize a free speech student group to Stanford Law School students shouting down US Circuit Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan in March.

“If you’ve gone to law school and you can’t tolerate hearing the other side of an argument and you can’t meet it with counterarguments but rather meet it with shouts and heckling, then you’ve probably gone into the wrong line of work,” the senator said of the Stanford debacle.

Stuart Kyle Duncan, Stanford law
Students tried to shout down federal Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan, a Trump appointee, when he was due to speak at Stanford Law School.
Stuart Kyle Duncan Stanford
Cotton says Stanford students shouting down Kyle Duncan in March was an especially low moment for campus free speech.

The legislation imposes different standards on private and public universities, since public universities are beholden to the First Amendment while private institutions are not.

It requires public universities to have policies consistent with the First Amendment and threatens to withhold federal funds if a school’s policies run afoul of free speech.

The law would also ban public colleges and universities from establishing so-called “free speech zones,” which are small areas of campus designated for free expression.

Posters on a whiteboard
Student protesters taped signs around Stanford’s campus after Duncan’s address, demanding apologies from the administration for allowing the event to take place.

Cotton said free speech shouldn’t be quarantined into specific zones on campus.

“The free speech zones on campus are usually relegated to the waste management treatment center in some corner of the campus where there’s never any foot traffic,” the senator joked.

And students at private schools would gain protections, too.

Cotton’s proposal would require private schools to clearly disclose their campus speech policies both to students and the Department of Education as a condition for receiving federal funding.

University of South Carolina dorm
The University of South Carolina didn’t recognize a free speech club but changed course after the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression challenged the decision.

It would also affirm that schools have a “contractual obligation” to their students to live up to their stated policies. 

If they break their promises, students would have a course of legal action in court.

That means, thanks to this bill, colleges and universities that trample on free speech could actually have to pay out damages. Cotton hopes that threat will make activist administrators think twice before violating students’ rights.

Mitch McConnell
Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, is one of nine co-sponsors of the bill, all of them Republican.

“Unfortunately, thanks to the politicization of faculty and college administrators and left-wing thought police, increasingly many of our universities are some of the most monolithic institutions in the country,” he alleged.

Cotton is joined by nine fellow sponsors of the bill, including Rick Scott and Marco Rubio of Florida and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. All are Republicans, who make up the minority in the Senate.

“I wish we had more Democratic support, but I’ve got to say it doesn’t surprise me that we don’t,” Cotton said. “Unfortunately, the Democratic Party, and more broadly the progressive movement in America, is hostile to free speech.”

Cotton said he hopes the Campus Free Speech Restoration Act will help reorient academia toward free speech principles central to the nation’s founding.

“The whole point of college is to expose students to ideas that they haven’t previously heard,” Cotton told The Post. “But if we’re protecting them and creating nothing but safe spaces and relegating free speech to the edge of the campus, we’re failing the students that we’re trying to educate.”

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