Department of Education Announces Rule Protecting Freedom of Speech and Religion on Campus

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has announced a “final rule” protecting the freedom of speech on both public and private college and university campuses by tying federal DOE research funds to compliance with those freedoms. The final rule also ensures the equal treatment and constitutional rights of religious student organizations at public institutions.

Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement accompanying the final rule, “This administration is committed to protecting the First Amendment rights of students, teachers, and faith-based institutions. Students should not be forced to choose between their faith and their education, and an institution controlled by a religious organization should not have to sacrifice its religious beliefs to participate in Department grants and programs. These regulations hold public institutions accountable for protecting the First Amendment rights of students and student organizations, and they require private colleges and universities that promise their students and faculty free expression, free inquiry, and diversity of thought to live up to those ideals.”

The final rule is the outgrowth of a presidential executive order issued by President Donald Trump in March 2019. In response to a growing problem on campuses from “speech zones,” speech codes, funding issues and discrimination based on viewpoint, the president ordered federal agencies to begin implementing protections for free speech, using the $35.8 billion in annual research grants from the federal government as an incentive for compliance.

Although the rule adds no new protections not already available to students via the First Amendment and federal and state statutes, it does provide a new incentive for schools to comply with those existing guarantees. Although a court judgment against a school is required before the ultimate punishment of withholding research funding can be imposed, it is intended to force college administrators to begin seriously thinking about the consequences of their sloppy, and, in some cases, intentional infringements of free speech.

A look at some of the numerous campus situations that The Daily Citizen has reported on over the past few years paints a growing problem with free speech, and especially where it concerns conservative and religious viewpoints. The schools tend to back down when challenged in court, but the problem seems to pervade the American college scene.

The free speech problem is not limited to public colleges and universities, either. Recognizing that private schools are not bound by the First Amendment protections that government schools are bound by and are required to protect, the final rule merely holds private schools accountable to meet their own published policies on speech.

The final rule also uses the threat of withholding DOE grants to protect religious clubs on campus, another problem at our politically correct colleges and universities. Because of battles over Christian behavior codes or statements of faith for leadership or membership, or withholding funds because of the religious viewpoint of the club, the final rule brings much-needed clarity to bear on the need for schools to reform their practices to ensure fair treatment and a level playing field for religion.

One of the most well-known watchdogs of First Amendment rights on campus is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The group is “cautiously optimistic” that the DOE final rule will change the current lay of the land on college campuses, but they intend to remain vigilant.

“It is not too much to ask of our nation’s colleges and universities that they follow the First Amendment or keep their own free speech promises if they wish to receive federal grant money,” said FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley. “As always, FIRE stands ready to assist any institution wishing to join those who already ensure that their policies protect free speech.”

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