House Committee Approves Bill Mandating “Free Speech” Policies, Funding on the Line for Colleges
March 25, 2024

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce last week approved the Respecting the First Amendment on Campus Act (H.R. 7683), a bill ostensibly aimed at ensuring free speech on college campuses. 

Included in the bill are provisions mandating that each college annually disclose its policies regarding free speech, association, and religious expression. The bill would also prohibit institutions from limiting students' participation in a "single-sex social organization." For example, it would not allow a private college to impose a restriction on freshmen joining fraternities or sororities.

The bill would impose additional requirements on public institutions, including prohibiting them from denying recognition of student groups based on the inability to find a faculty sponsor, mandating that student orientation materials explain First Amendment rights, preventing political tests for student admission or faculty hiring, and precluding any consideration of a campus event’s “anticipated reaction by students or the public” when setting security fees to be charged to a hosting student or student organization. It would also decree that time, place, and manner restrictions may not be imposed on any “publicly accessible outdoor areas of campuses of public institutions” in a way that inhibits “spontaneous assembly and distribution of literature.” 

Any institution that doesn’t comply would lose access to federal financial aid for a year.

In a letter to the committee before the vote, ACE and five other higher education groups outlined their strong opposition to the bill, which they believe takes a flawed approach that ultimately undermines the ability to foster open discourse and ensure student safety. They have called on the committee to work with stakeholders to develop a more effective approach.

Among their concerns is the rigid and costly regulatory and enforcement framework the bill would mandate, particularly for public colleges and universities which are already subject to the requirements of the First Amendment. The loss of eligibility of all Title IV funding for even minor infractions raises serious concerns about the potential harm to students.

The groups also said that the provision restricting how campuses handle event planning and security could potentially compromise safety, because preventing institutions from considering potential reactions when setting security fees could lead to reduced safety measures. 

“Given the Committee’s recent focus on concerns regarding antisemitism and the need for campuses to increase their efforts to provide safe environments free from discrimination for all students,” the groups wrote, “we are puzzled by the bill’s inclusion of provisions that would tie the hands of campus administrators to address these issues and potentially make campuses less safe.”

The bill's rushed approval process, with minimal public review, also raises serious transparency concerns—stakeholders had only five days to review the legislation before the vote.

The committee also passed the Accreditation for College Excellence Act of 2023, which would ban accrediting agencies from telling colleges to support or oppose a particular set of social or political beliefs, such as the value of diversity, as a condition of accreditation.