Senate Passes Blackburn, Kennedy Bill to Protect Free Speech on American College Campuses

June 10, 2020

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the Senate passed the Concerns Over Nations Funding University Campus Institutes in the United States (CONFUCIUS) Act by unanimous consent. The legislation address concerns about Confucius Institutes suppressing free speech on American college campuses. It is sponsored by Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), John Kennedy (R-La.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

“The Chinese Communist Party has used deceptive tactics to infiltrate our U.S. university campuses and K-12 classrooms,” said Senator Blackburn. “Those studying Chinese culture and language at Confucius Institutes should be alarmed to learn that these facilities are a part of the Communist Party propaganda. It is an affront to academic freedom, and we should not bow to repressive Chinese propaganda systems. I am pleased that today the Senate acknowledged the importance of putting some serious distance between Confucius Institutes and American universities through the passage of the CONFUCIUS Act.”
“The Chinese Communist Party has made nests for its propaganda on college campuses all over our country. Confucius Institutes are threatening academic liberty and free speech without shame, and too many American schools have fallen victim to the political con. It’s time to end Communist China’s deceitful attacks on democratic freedoms by giving power back to American students and educators,” said Senator Kennedy. 

At universities across the U.S., the Chinese government is waging an influence war through its Confucius Institutes. Though ostensibly designed to promote cultural studies on college campuses, Confucius Institutes receive direct funding from the Chinese government. 
The CONFUCIUS Act reduces the Chinese Communist Party’s influence on U.S. colleges and universities by granting full managerial authority of Confucius Institutes to the universities that host them. 

It also requires Confucius Institutes to:

  • Protect academic freedom on the campus where the Confucius Institute is located,
  • Prohibit the application of any foreign law on any campus of the institution, and
  • Grant full control over what a Confucius Institute teaches, the activities it carries out, the research grants it gives, and the individuals it employs to the college or university on which it is located.  

This bill would prohibit federal government funding to colleges and universities that host Confucius Institutes and are not in compliance with the above provisions. The funding prohibition would only apply to funding directed to the college or university and would not include funding disbursed to students, such as Pell Grants.

Earlier this year, Senator Blackburn introduced the Transparency for Confucius Institutes Act to require program participation agreements between Confucius Institutes and American institutions that house them to address the ways China exerts undue influence. She also led a group of Senate colleagues in urging Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to exercise necessary oversight.

According to the nonpartisan National Association of Scholars, there are at least 72 Confucius Institutes at colleges and universities in the U.S.

This May, the College Republican National Committee and the College Democrats of America wrote a joint letter calling for the “immediate and permanent closure of all Confucius Institutes in the United States” due to their “concerns over the present state of academic freedom” and “the continued exploitation of liberal, democratic academic institutions by authoritarians.” 

These institutes can threaten universities by withholding funding in order to achieve their objectives, such as regulating speech the Chinese government opposes. Universities forced to choose between losing funding or upholding free speech are often tempted to yield to an institution funded by a foreign government over the interests of free speech. This allows foreign governments like China’s Communist Party to exert influence (such as prohibiting the Dalai Lama from speaking on a campus) and even apply Chinese Communist laws on U.S. soil.