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Senate judiciary committee hearing focuses on campus free speech

Posted June 20

Senate judiciary committee hearing focuses on campus free speech

Two college students warned of increasingly stifled speech on college campuses at a Senate judiciary committee hearing Tuesday.

Zachary Wood, a rising senior at Williams College, and Isaac Smith, a student at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, appeared before the committee at a hearing titled "Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses."

As the president of "Uncomfortable Learning," Wood faced backlash for his student organization inviting controversial speakers to campus, like conservative commentator John Derbyshire. According to Wood's testimony, Derbyshire's invitation was canceled after significant outcry from Williams students and faculty over Derbyshire's inflammatory comments about race.

"In my time at Williams, I cannot name a single conservative speaker that has been brought to campus by the administration," said Wood, who himself identifies as a liberal Democrat.

Smith echoed Wood's sentiment in his own testimony, sharing how he sued Ohio University for penalizing his student group over allegedly offensive T-shirts, which violated OU's code of conduct at the time.

The group, Students Defending Students, defended students accused of campus misconduct. Their group's T-shirts said, "we get you off for free" -- a sexually suggestive slogan that the university said violated its code of conduct.

Smith and his group sued, and the university settled the lawsuit and changed its code of conduct. On Tuesday, Smith said it was "unfortunate" that such serious action had to be taken to align the school's policies more closely with the First Amendment.

"Taken together, we know that administrators nationwide are stifling free speech," he added.

Williams President Adam Falk responded with a statement to CNN, saying that the school "appreciates Zach Woods' work" on behalf of campus free speech.

"He's often critical of me and the college administration, but approaches our dialogues thoughtfully and respectfully," Falk said. "While at some moments we've disagreed on appropriate processes, we share a commitment to free expression of ideas on campus."

Messages left with Ohio University were not immediately returned Tuesday afternoon.

Wood and Smith found a sympathetic audience in judiciary committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who accused campus administrators of censoring speech.

"Many administrators believe that students should be shielded from hate speech -- whatever that is -- as an exception to the First Amendment," Grassley said in his opening remarks. "Unfortunately, this censorship is not all different from any other examples in history when speech that authorities deemed to be heretical has been suppressed based upon its content."

Cruz also defended free speech on college campuses as an absolute right.

RELATED: Quiz: Is hate speech free speech?

"The Nazis are grotesque and repulsive and evil. And under our Constitution, they have a right to speak, and the rest of us have a moral obligation to denounce what they say," Cruz said. "The Ku Klux Klan are a bunch of racist, bigoted thugs, who have a right to express their views. And we have an obligation then to confront those views -- which are weak, poisonous and wrong -- and confront them with truth."

"We don't need to use brute force to silence them, because truth is far more powerful than force," the Texas senator added.

The hearing comes at a time of nationwide debate about the limits of free speech on college campuses.

Earlier this year, violent protests erupted at UC Berkeley over a planned event with conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, which was later canceled. Ann Coulter's invitation to speak at the liberal-leaning university was also rescinded after more protests were threatened.

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