Keep the Free Inquiry Rule

5

In 2020, the Department of Education issued the Free Inquiry Rule, which requires public and private institutions of higher education that receive Education Department grants to uphold free-speech principles on campus. If a court finds a violation of the rule, the offending institution is subject to sanctions from DOE, including possible loss of federal funding.

Many Jewish communal advocates — and particularly pro-Israel campus advocates — applauded the rule. They saw it as a means to assure protection for Jewish students on campus, and particularly pro-Israel students, who were ostracized, forced out of student government or otherwise coerced into silence because of their religious affiliation or public expressions of support for Israel. Now, with the rule in place, universities need to be more vigilant and sensitive to anti-Israel and other biases on their campuses, or risk losing government funding.

In February, DOE sought public comment on a proposed revision to the rule that would remove the added layer of protection for religious student groups on campus. The stated rationale for the change is that extra protection for religious groups is not necessary because universities already have fully compliant and enforceable free-speech protections in place. And, proponents of the revision argue, the additional layer of protection imposed by the current version of the rule will only generate more litigation.


Among those commenting on the proposed change is the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a public interest advocacy group that has represented Jewish students who claim religious discrimination on campus. (Brandeis Center is not affiliated with Brandeis University.) In a five-page letter to DOE, the Brandeis Center explains why the religious student group protection under the rule is necessary; how Brandeis Center has used the rule and its religious group protections as leverage in representing affected students and groups; and why it makes sense to hold universities accountable for the First Amendment protections they promise their students — and liable for any breach of that promise.
We agree with the Brandeis Center. And we are puzzled by what is driving the DOE’s concern.

DOE is (or should be) well aware of the disturbing spike in antisemitic activity on college campuses and the targeting of pro-Israel student advocates. DOE should be doing everything it can to stop such behavior and encourage meaningful responses to such activities, including insistence on full enforcement of the rule’s religious protection provisions if that can be helpful. But DOE seems to be worried that the rule gives religious groups too much protection. This begs the question: Is there harm in giving religious groups enhanced protection on campus? Are there rights of others that DOE is worried would be infringed or threatened if Jewish and other religious groups on campus are protected against infringement of their First Amendment rights? And shouldn’t it be the responsibility of universities to protect all their students, including religious students, who are targeted for their exercise of otherwise protected speech?

These are not tough questions. DOE should not be looking to roll back student protections on campus. It should be figuring out ways to enhance them. DOE should retain the Free Inquiry Rule.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Free speech is the main pillar of freedom not only on campus but everywhere in society. Is this part of the censorship idealogy that’s sweeping the country?

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here