With school out for the summer, the House subcommittees on Intergovernmental Affairs and Health Care, Benefits, and Administrative Rules held a joint hearing Thursday morning to address the challenges to freedom of speech on college campuses.
Right as the doors opened at 7:30, a crowd of young people anxious to hear from the witnesses gathered outside the room, eventually growing so large that an overflow space had to be opened. Students waiting to be let into the hearing broke into cheers as Ben Shapiro was ushered down the hallway with comedian Adam Carolla, both of whom were slated to testify before the committees, along with representatives from the Anti-Defamation League, New York University Law School, and a former provost from Evergreen State College.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, presided over the hearing, which he opened by showing a video of recent protests on campuses everywhere from the University of California, Berkeley to DePaul University to Evergreen State, where demonstrations erupted over an event that involved asking white people to leave for a day. "Unfortunately, today on many campuses, students and faculty are forced into self-censorship," Jordan said in his subsequent remarks.
"Restricting speech that does not conform to popular opinion contradicts the First Amendment principles," he argued. Jordan also condemned the culture of safe spaces and microaggressions in higher education, a sentiment that was echoed by his fellow Republicans in the hearing.
Democratic committee members, including Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, expressed concern over a recent bill being considered by Republicans in the Wisconsin state legislature that would implement stiffer punishments for students who obstruct speakers on campus. It came largely as a response to disruptive protests of Shapiro's lecture at the state's flagship university last fall. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., claimed "the problem is not high-profile speakers like Ann Coulter," arguing instead the issue more worthy of consideration was the alleged rise in white supremacism on college campuses. Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett made a similar argument, pointing to what she sees as the growth of an alt-right movement on campuses.
In his testimony, Shapiro said it was "necessary to explore the ideology that provides the impetus for a lot of the protesters" who have resorted to violence. That ideology, the author explained, can be better understood through three key characteristics. The first is the philosophy of intersectionality, that the "validity or invalidity" of a viewpoint can be judged by a person's identity, Shapiro said. The second is the Left's impulse to call their opponents' speech "verbal violence." And the third is the belief that "physical violence is sometimes justified."
"It turns students into snowflakes, craven, and pathetic," Shapiro said.
Carolla joked that today's young people grew up "dipped in Purell." The comedian remembered touring college campuses as part of his MTV show "Loveline" with Dr. Drew Pinsky in the 1990's, recalling no hints of the culture of safe spaces and censorship that dominates today.
"Our plan is put them in a bubble, keep them away from everything, and somehow they'll come out stronger," Carolla said, decrying society's attitude towards educating young people.
The comedian called on adults to start acting their age. "Children are the future but we are the present," he remarked.
Dr. Michael Zimmerman, former provost and vice president for academic affairs at Evergreen State, has been critical of the school's response to the protests that broke out earlier this year. In the hearing, he blamed professors and administrators for failing to "hold their colleagues accountable."
"Most faculty have opted to remain silent, to censor themselves," Zimmerman explained, contending that silence means schools have "ceded" campuses to a "small, but vocal minority." He theorized the radicalization of some students may stem from postmodern teachings that "all knowledge is socially constructed."
The hearing lasted three hours, with committee members from both parties questioning the five witnesses for more than two hours of that time. At one point, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., challenged Anti-Defamation League National Commissioner Frederick Lawrence on his decision to withdraw an honorary degree from women's rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali while he was president of Brandeis University in 2014 over her views on Islam. "Was this a correct decision?" the congressman demanded to know. Lawrence said it was.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., who taught constitutional law at American University for more than two decades, called the hearing the "most fascinating" that he's experienced in his six months in Congress.
As the meeting concluded, Jordan thanked the young people in the audience for attending and pledged to include students as witnesses in future hearings on the subject.
Emily Jashinsky is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.