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Betsy DeVos, Education Department Issue Final Rule Protecting Free Speech On College Campuses

“Officials at public institutions may not abridge their students’ or employees’ expressions, ideas, or thoughts.”
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee discussing proposed budget estimates and justification for FY2020 for the Education Department on March 28, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos kept her promise to protect free speech on college campuses, issuing the Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities final rule.

The rule states:

Under the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence protecting the individual’s right to his own ideas and beliefs, “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” As a result, officials at public institutions may not abridge their students’ or employees’ expressions, ideas, or thoughts.

It continues:

Academic freedom’s noble premise is that the vigilant protection of free speech unshackled from the demands and constraints of censorship will help generate new thoughts, ideas, knowledge, and even questions and doubts about previously undisputed ideas. Although academic freedom’s value derives itself from the fact that its “results . . . are to the general benefit in the long run,” academic freedom is also inherently important in a free society.

The rule addresses free speech at religious institutions: “Religiously affiliated institutions, in freely exercising their faith, may define their free speech policies as they choose in a manner consistent with their mission. The final regulations do not mandate that religiously affiliated institutions adopt any particular policies in order to participate in the Department’s grants and programs. In other words, the final regulations do not require any private institution to adopt a campus free speech policy that complies with the First Amendment, and the Department cannot force any religiously affiliated school to compromise the free exercise of its religion.”

“No religious student organization should be forced to choose between their religion and receiving the benefits, rights, and privileges that other student organizations receive from a public institution,” the rule states. “Religious student organizations should be able to enjoy the benefits, rights, and privileges afforded to other student organizations at a public institution.”

“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,” said DeVos. “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.”

Some of the aspects delineated in the final rule as noted by the Department of Education include: public colleges and universities must comply with the First Amendment as a requirement to receive Department grants; the Department will rely upon a final, non-default judgment by a state or federal court to determine whether a public or private institution has violated these material grant conditions.

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