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Senate hearing examines free speech on college campuses after incidents at UC-Berkeley, Middlebury

A free speech protest in Civic Center Park in Berkeley, Calif., this year. (Nick Otto for The Washington Post)

U.S. senators focused Tuesday on the issues surrounding free speech on college campuses, as some expressed concerns that voices have been suppressed because they have been deemed offensive, and others raised questions about how to balance First Amendment rights with safety.

“There is no point in having a student body on campus if competing ideas are not exchanged and analyzed and respected by each other,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The committee examined the issue at a Tuesday hearing titled “Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses.”

Watch: Berkeley keeps erupting in protests (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post, Photo: STEPHEN LAM/The Washington Post)

When a “heckler’s veto” succeeded, what effect did that have on the campus climate, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) asked two college students at the hearing. Some states allow guns on college campuses, said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). Doesn’t that make the issue more complicated for university presidents?

On too many college campuses, Grassley said, free speech “appears to be sacrificed at the altar of political correctness.” Cruz, meanwhile, commented that too many institutions “quietly roll over” at the threat of violence.

“It’s tragic what is happening at so many American universities,” Cruz said. “Where college administrators and faculties have become complicit in functioning essentially as speech police.”

The committee heard from a panel that included both students and other experts. Among them: Zachary Wood, a student at Williams College who is involved in an organization that brings provocative speakers to the Massachusetts campus; Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Frederick Lawrence, a former university president who is secretary and chief executive of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

“The challenges of free expression on our campuses have never seemed greater,” Lawrence said. “I know this from my years as a law school dean, and as a university president.”

These challenges, he continued, “come in all directions and from all contexts.”

“They come from the left, and they come from the right,” Lawrence said. “They involve students, they involve faculty, they involve outside speakers.”

Students at Middlebury College protested an author who’s been called a white nationalist, causing the college to move a lecture to another room on campus. (Video: Will DiGravio)

The hearing followed high-profile incidents involving free-speech issues on colleges campuses across the country. In April, a scuffle broke out during protests of an appearance from Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who came to speak on the Alabama campus.

A few months ago at Middlebury College, an angry mob swarmed Charles Murray, an author and conservative scholar, after he attempted to deliver a lecture at the private liberal arts college in Vermont.

At the University of California at Berkeley, a speech from conservative commentator Ann Coulter was canceled in April, after concerns about protests growing violent. There was also unrest on Berkeley’s campus in February over a planned appearance from Milo Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart writer.

The University of California at Berkeley canceled a talk by inflammatory Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos after intense protesting. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

“What brings us here today is that time and again, speech is being effectively banned on campuses because the speaker has ideas that offend,” said Floyd Abrams, senior counsel at the firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel and another witness. “That’s the problem. It does not arise in the main because university administrations are seeking to suppress speech, it arises more often than not because students find it intolerable to have certain speakers appear and certain ideas expressed with which they disagree and they find offensive or even outrageous.”

At the hearing Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) noted that universities deal with speaking events that could present a danger or threat to the campus community, particularly those that draw outside groups of protesters. Colleges don’t always have the resources to deal with those types of situations, she said, and run the risk of harm.

“I know of no effort at Berkeley, of the University of California, to stifle student speech. None,” she said. “And if there is a specific effort, I would certainly appreciate it if people brought that to my attention. But I do believe that the university has a right to protect its students from demonstrations once they become acts of violence.”

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