Higher Education (PROSPER) Act: Free Speech or Discrimination?

The Higher Education (PROSPER) Act, which dictates how and why federal aid can be distributed to students and colleges, is up for renewal. Republican lawmakers are seizing the chance to rewrite its provisions surrounding religious freedom and free speech, counteracting what they view as widespread hostility toward conservative beliefs on college campuses. However, many congressional democrats and human rights groups argue that the proposed legislation is paving the way for discrimination in the name of religion.

The 590-page bill currently working its way through the U.S. House of Representatives would give religious institutions of higher education the authority to ban openly same-sex relationships between students, provide legal protection for religious student organizations who reject members of different faiths, and more. In response to Harvard University’s efforts to eliminate single-sex social clubs, the revised bill also includes a “freedom of association” provision which defends the rights of fraternities and sororities to admit members of only one gender. The bill authorizes the federal government to withhold funds from colleges and universities if they don’t uphold these protections.

For the most part, Republican lawmakers support the argument that the bill’s proposed changes protect religious freedom for institutions and students. Congressional Democrats, on the other hand, say the revisions would allow colleges and universities to discriminate against LGBTQ students and others. Several outside groups, including the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Black Justice Coalition, have issued statements condemning the bill on the grounds that it overregulates higher education institutions and legalizes discrimination.

In contrast, Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director for Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free speech advocacy group, says the bill’s revisions stand to benefit students across the political spectrum because all students are at risk of being censored for their beliefs. The new bill, for example, deters — but does not outright ban — “free speech zones” on college campuses, the use of which has been criticized by conservatives and free speech advocates. The new bill would also require colleges to publicly declare their policies regarding free speech, and allows for schools to be sued should they violate such policies by restricting certain speakers.

Many of the bill’s changes run counter to recent Supreme Court decisions. For example, in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that a student group called the Christian Legal Society at the University of California Hastings College of the Law could not be recognized by the university because it didn’t allow gay students to vote or assume leadership roles. In addition, since 2015, Christian colleges that forbid gay dating or marriage have instituted practices that run counter to the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the constitutionality of same-sex marriage.

According to The New York Times, the bill is likely to pass the House, but will require additional Democratic support to pass through the Senate.