Our nation’s colleges have suffered from an extreme case of what I’d call “mission drift” in recent decades.
Formerly bastions for debate, discussion, and divergent views, many colleges now actually stifle these stalwarts of our prized First Amendment. You’ve likely heard of the violent protests and cancellations of “controversial” speakers lately, but that’s only part of the attack on free speech at our campuses. The other, more secretive element of the assault on constitutionally protected speech comes in the form of “bias response teams,” or “bias reporting systems.”
These apparatuses are more times than not a means with which triggered students can anonymously tattle tale on their peers for merely holding or expressing contrasting views. These reports of bias are delivered to the administrators over these teams, then a reprimand is usually handed down to the student who is typically guilty of nothing more than expressing a view that his/her classmate might find offensive. There are two red flags here, other than the tricky unconstitutionality of this, of course.
#1: What is bias? This definition might be determined by the eye of the beholder. Could it mean a view that differs from another? Even if the perceived “bias” is legitimate, is that grounds for shutting it down? Is “bias” a relative term?
#2: Anonymity in reporting. If person A disagrees with person B, wouldn’t that be a great opportunity — especially in the academic setting — to discuss it or debate it? Open debate is essential to the formative college years, is it not? But our college students are being deprived of that opportunity through this anonymous reporting mechanism. This quells speech but it also normalizes the avoidance of exchanging ideas and debating issues. Do we want the next crop of teachers, doctors, lawyers, and engineers to be paralyzed by an opposing view?
These questions are important and undoubtedly questions that college administrators have had to ask themselves of late. But from my standpoint, the chief question that must be asked of leaders in Academia is this: are the intimidation tactics of the progressive left powerful enough to nullify perhaps the most instrumental tenet of higher education? Free speech.
All of these questions and concerns hit home here in Pennsylvania. The University of Pittsburgh chancellor, Pat Gallagher, was grilled just the other week by a Democratic lawmaker calling on the cancellation of three conservative speakers slated to come to Pitt’s campus. The context of this ridiculous questioning was a budget hearing on state-related universities. So, in a discussion about how many state dollars should go to the University of Pittsburgh, the chancellor was seemingly met with a veiled ultimatum to cancel speakers.
That kind of questioning is dangerously approaching quid pro quo territory. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a direct attack on constitutionally protected free speech, which is a more consequential problem than state education funding for the next calendar year.
That’s why I’m introducing House Bill 179, or the Free Speech in Higher Education Bill. HB 179 would do three things:
- It would eliminate bias reporting systems in each Pennsylvania university that gets state funding.
- It would prevent universities from assessing unusually high security fees for one speaker over another.
- It would create a pathway for civil action for students whose speech is suppressed counter to the language of this bill.
It’s sad that legislation must be introduced to affirm constitutionally protected free speech, but it’s necessary. Free speech is the nucleus of our Republic and our Commonwealth. We can’t allow it to be stolen by the very institutions that should be embracing it.
State Rep. Joe D’Orsie represents the 47th District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, including portions of York County. He was first elected to the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 2022.