DENVER – Education Secretary Betsy DeVos offered a reminder last week to state legislators frustrated by protests shutting down free speech at public universities: You control the purse strings.
Ms. DeVos, who delivered her remarks at the American Legislative Exchange Council annual meeting, said that “we all have a role to play in reversing the trend” toward campus intolerance, which has been manifested in recent years with the muzzling of conservative speakers and viewpoints.
“For state legislators, you have the power of the purse,” she said. “And I wouldn’t hope to suggest how you might approach that, but I think that really bringing some of the most egregious examples to the forefront — we all have the opportunity to use our bully pulpits to talk about these things and bring light to places of darkness where speech is not being allowed to be free and open and heard.”
Her comments came with state lawmakers increasingly exasperated by campus melees, including last semester’s University of California, Berkeley rioting and the student takeover at Evergreen State College, driven by students unwilling to brook dissenting opinions.
“Let me say I think this is a really, really important issue, one that has become even more important in the last couple of years,” said Ms. DeVos. “We have seen in far too many cases an intolerance toward listening to and at least hearing from others that have different perspectives than ours.”
State lawmakers have begun to react. In Washington, a pair of Republican legislators introduced bills in June to defund Evergreen State and transform it into a private college.
For those who might find such a solution extreme, ALEC unveiled last month the Forming Open and Robust University Minds Act (FORUM), a piece of model legislation aimed at reopening debate on increasingly close-minded campuses.
The model policy eliminates campus “free-speech zones,” reaffirms First Amendment rights, allows those whose free speech rights may have been violated to bring causes of action and requires free speech education for students as well as administrators and campus police.
The measure also “empowers legislators to hold universities accountable by requiring each institution to report on free speech issues prior to the legislature’s appropriations process.”
Shelby Emmett, director of ALEC’s Center to Protect Free Speech, said the proposed policy differs from others that require free speech education only for incoming freshmen.
“Obviously, there’s a problem with free speech on campus well before freshmen arrive if you have administrators or campus police officers who think you can detain or arrest or suspend a student because they passed out a Constitution,” said Ms. Emmett. “I think it’s easy to go after the students, but this is a cultural problem.”
The focus today lies with progressive students suppressing conservatives, but “this is not at all a political issue,” said Ms. Emmett.
“This happens on both sides,” she said. “It goes back and forth. Free speech is one of those things where people say they love it until they don’t love it.”
Universities have seen their reputations take a hit as a result of their apparent opposition to conservative views.
A survey released last week by the Pew Research Center found 58 percent of Republicans believe higher education has a negative effect on the nation, compared with just 36 percent who say the effect is positive.
The reverse was true two years ago, when 54 percent of Republicans found higher education positive and 37 percent said it was negative.
In between those two surveys, there have been massive student demonstrations, notably the campus shutdown in 2015 at the University of Missouri, as well as incidents at private institutions such as Yale University and Claremont McKenna College.
Ms. DeVos can speak from personal experience: In May students booed and interrupted her graduation address at Bethune-Cookman University in Orlando, Florida.
The education secretary typically draws a protest crowd driven by teachers’ unions wherever she speaks, but there were no demonstrators Thursday outside the Hyatt Regency Denver for her ALEC address.
The day before she arrived, however, several hundred foes of her school choice agenda held a rally at the state capitol and then marched to the Hyatt Regency, chanting “resist” and holding signs with messages like “ALEC Leave Our Kids Alone!”
The marchers were greeted by ALEC staffers who passed out water bottles in the nearly 100-degree heat. The message on the water bottles: “Quenching your thirst for free speech.”
“That’s perfect,” said Ms. DeVos.
Free speech is “a very important issue, and one which I plan to continue to talk and speak out about, and I hope all of you who have opportunities to do that in your states will do the same,” she said. “Because the value of hearing and learning from others is an invaluable, invaluable thing.”
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