© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute
Lauren Boebert, Anna Paulina Luna, James Comer
Republicans on the House Oversight Committee visited George Washington University last week to see a student encampment over the Israel-Hamas war. Jose Luis Magana/AP

The GOP Wants to Punish Colleges. It’s Unclear How Much It Can.

Lawmakers have thrown out various ideas to address campus protests, but Congress’ actual power to force change is limited.

In response to pro-Palestine protests, Republicans have threatened everything from taking federal funding away from universities, deporting students who have been involved and arresting those who refuse to comply.

But other than holding hearings where public officials and university representatives are blasted with questions, it’s unclear if Congress can accomplish these goals.

Some of their ideas could run into serious legal challenges, and others could die in a Democratic-controlled Senate. The most lawmakers may be able to do is use their bully pulpit to try to force change at universities.

That’s not to say free speech experts aren’t worried — and they’re already discussing what to do should these lawmakers succeed in passing new legislation or finding creative ways to punish certain campuses.

“Congress has really expansive authority to ensure that the programs it funds comply with congressional mandates,” said Tyler Coward, lead counsel for government affairs at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which advocates for free speech causes.

“There have been calls from certain members of Congress that seem to be, if they’ve not crossed that line, they’re awfully close,” he said.

The first legislation passed in response to the campus protests was a bipartisan bill that would enshrine a specific definition of antisemitism for the Department of Education. Some other experts consider that definition overly broad, warning that it could include criticism of the Israeli government. If that bill is signed into law, universities could lose federal funding or be disciplined if the Department of Education finds that a campus hasn’t done enough to quell antisemitism.

“On the Israel-Palestine conflicts [the bill] codifies potentially that certain criticisms of Israel are just off limits and ways that criticisms of other countries aren’t,” Coward said. “That is classic viewpoint discrimination, and it’s just not tolerated by the First Amendment.”

The Senate has not yet taken up the bill, but the American Civil Liberties Union and FIRE are already pushing for it to be blocked. If it were to become law, it would likely end up in court.

“The House’s approval of this misguided and harmful bill is a direct attack on the First Amendment,” the ACLU’s Christopher Anders said in a statement. “Addressing rising antisemitism is critically important, but sacrificing American’s free speech rights is not the way to solve that problem.”

Even that bill shows the limits of Congress’ power. The Department of Education has jurisdiction over schools and their potential civil rights offenses, so while Congress could pressure the department to sanction schools, they won’t ultimately be in control.

It’s not the only step lawmakers hope to take in response to the protests, although many of the vows for action have been vague.

“We will hold these universities accountable for their failure to protect Jewish students on campus, and that’s why today we are here to announce a House-wide effort to crack down on antisemitism on college campuses,” Speaker Mike Johnson said in a press conference last week. “Nearly every committee here has a role to play in these efforts to stop the madness that has ensued.”

“We’re going to elaborate on what we’ll be doing as part of this whole House effort,” Johnson said, failing to do so.

During a visit to the encampments on George Washington University’s campus last week, Oversight Committee Chair James Comer responded similarly to questions about what members would do.

“We’re going to do everything in our ability,” he said.

The first step will be a hearing on Wednesday on how D.C. responded to the protests at GW. The Oversight Committee invited D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Metropolitan Police Department Chief Pamela Smith to testify over reports that the police declined a request from the university to help remove protesters.

Over in the Senate, Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy told NOTUS he wants the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the nonprofit status of groups he alleges are “training people how to be rioters.”

He added that he “would love it if we said, ‘If you participate in one of these [protests] and you’re expelled, then you are not [to] qualify for any future student loan forgiveness program.’”

Democratic Sen. Chris Coons took a more introspective approach.

“Congress needs to demonstrate, through how we conduct ourselves, that we’re committed to civil discourse,” he said. “We haven’t always done the best at that in recent years.”

Casey Murray and Nuha Dolby are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows.