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Freedom of Speech on Campus Questioned by Congressional Tax Writers

March 7, 2016

The House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee held a hearing March 2 to examine whether tax-exempt colleges and universities "are suppressing the free exchange of ideas on campus." Subcommittee Chairman Peter Roskam (R-IL), in his opening statement, expressed concerns that institutions are wrongly invoking "their 501(c)(3) status to stifle political speech on campus, especially during election years."

With a sharply differing approach, Ranking Member John Lewis (D-GA) questioned, in his opening statement, why the Oversight Subcommittee was holding the hearing. "The Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee does not have jurisdiction over future legislation, over freedom of speech, or college curriculum or school resources," he said.

Witnesses included Alexander Atkins from Georgetown University, Catherine Sevcenko from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Joshua Zuckerman from the Princeton Open Campus Coalition, Robert George from Princeton University, and Frances Hill from the University of Miami School of Law.

Hill, a tax law expert, noted the guidance set forth by the Internal Revenue Service and courts for 501(c)(3) organizations and explained that the fundamental question is whether or not prohibited political speech or activity can be attributed to the institution, stating, "students can do almost anything."

During the hearing, Roskam encouraged students and faculty to email campus.speech@mail.house.gov to report incidents of campus restrictions on their freedom of speech. 

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