Congress introduces free speech law

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As single-sex organizations such as fraternities and sororities become increasingly unpopular on politically correct campuses, some universities have been taking measures to restrict students’ rights to free association by suspending students and withholding federal grants and loans.The groups have been blocked from advertising their events, and campus media are struggling with new roadblocks in their reporting and advertising.The Freedom of Speech and Association Act of 1997 (HR 980) is a direct reaction to this trend and has been reintroduced in Congress this session (it was first introduced in 1996) to offer new protections for students’ free speech rights.The proposed law is significant to the student press because it will be the first legislation to threaten schools’ federal funding in order to protect students’ First Amendment rights.The bill, sponsored by Rep. Robert Livingston (R-La.), emphasizes First and 14th Amendment Rights and seeks to withhold federal funds from public and private universities that punish students for engaging in protected expression.”What we’re saying is that universities can’t restrict free association, specifically to frats and sororities, by withholding grants and loans,” said Mark Corallo, Livingston’s press secretary. “You might not like the group, but you can’t discriminate against them or violate the constitutional rights of their members.At Colby, Bowdoin, Middlebury and Hamilton colleges, among others, single-sex fraternities and sororities have been banned and their persisting members have been punished. Other schools have had problems with student organizations which have not been officially recognized by school officials.In some of these cases, students have been punished by having their loans, grants and scholarships revoked, and others have been expelled from school.”We’re saying, ‘Look, you can’t aggressively punish them by withholding federal grants and loans,’ which, believe it or not, is something some universities have tried to do when there’s a fraternity or other organization on campus that they don’t like.”If passed, HR 980 would amend the Higher Education Act to deny funds to any institution violating the free speech and association rights of students. Corallo refers to the legislation as “the frat bill,” but says that its language is broad and will reinforce protections for all student organizations and media outlets.”If any frowned upon group wants to put out any communication under the current circumstances at some of these schools, it would be very difficult,” Corallo said.The implications of the bill for student press remain unclear, but it could potentially be a tremendous free speech victory for college students in general.”It really starts to come down to a censorship issue,” Corallo said. “These people do have free speech and association rights. We’re just saying to the colleges, ‘Look, if you want to receive federal funds, you need to be recognizing those rights.'”The bill was first introduced last year, but was never acted on. HR 980 is identical to the bill introduced last year and has been referred to the House Education and Work Force Committee.