New Department of Education Hotline for Campus Free Speech Violations Draws Criticism

A modern classroom with rows of desks and chairs facing large windows overlooking a green landscape, reflected sunlight brightening the interior, yet obscured by the shadow of free speech violations.

In December, the U.S. Department of Education announced the implementation of a new “free speech hotline” for students and faculty members to file complaints about free speech violations at colleges and universities.

The “hotline” is not so much a hotline in the traditional sense.  Instead an email account managed by attorneys from the Office of General Counsel for the Department of Education is available to receive complaints about First Amendment violations at campuses across the nation.

The creation of this hotline drew significant criticism from higher education representatives, who are dubious the move will have any real impact. Many administrators in higher education are biding their time in the hopes that the incoming administration of Joseph Biden, who has already pledged to undo the Trump administration’s education initiatives.  It is expected that the new email hotline being created in the 11th hour of Trump’s presidency will likely have little if any tangible effect on college campuses.

Concerns about campus free speech

However, concerns about free speech on college campuses are not new or unique to the Trump administration.  The federal government’s interest in these issues increased in intensity under the Trump administration but so have complaints of persecution or retaliation against campus speech.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a free-speech watchdog, has reported an increase in complaints by an order of magnitude in 2020, and a study released in the fall of last year found that “students, especially those in the political minority at an institution, are censoring or editing what they say and are uncomfortable and reluctant to challenge peers and professors on controversial topics.”

Sixty percent of students have expressed fear that they cannot speak freely on campus for fear of retaliation by students, faculty, or campus bureaucrats.  In this hostile environment for free expression, it is not surprising that some students and faculty are turning to the courts.

The report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) indicates 2020 saw more complaints about free speech and expression violations from college campuses than ever. The creation of the hotline has its roots in a March 2019 executive order signed by President Trump to ensure colleges follow the First Amendment and their own established free expression policies.

In addition to creating this hotline, the Department of Education has investigated multiple institutions to determine if universities allow “free and open expression as specifically guaranteed by those same universities,” according to the assistant secretary of education for postsecondary education, Robert King.

However, other education advocates and officials deny that there is active suppression of free speech occurring at college campuses is misleading, and they also claim that the Department of Education does not have any legal authority to intervene or interfere in campus activities.

The hotline does not technically interfere in campus activities.  Critics who wanted to see a more robust method of addressing free speech concerns are unimpressed by what they see as a “too little, too late” effort to approach the issue.

What is clear is that free speech issues have intensified in number as well as in the consequences for students and faculty, who now face disciplinary proceedings and even termination for expressing views that run afoul of campus administrators.  Increasingly, professors and students have turned to litigation against their institutions, and even against colleagues who retaliate against them for expressing unpopular opinions.

For more information about the creation of this new free speech hotline and to learn how to handle issues involving suppression of free speech at campuses, contact us today.