Protecting free speech on campus

I’ll be testifying at 10 a.m. Jan. 31 at the LBJ Student Center at Texas State University in San Marcos on the need to protect free speech on campus.

Hopefully, you’ll be able to hear me, along with the other witnesses and lawmakers who attend. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case on college campuses these days.

When Rep. Briscoe Cain tried to speak to the Federalist Society chapter at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law in October, protesters disrupted the event and Cain never had a chance to be heard.

It was a scene that has become all too familiar at schools across the country – speakers shouted down and sometimes violently attacked, simply for exercising their First Amendment rights.

Let’s be clear: Demonstrators have the right to peaceably assemble, and to protest the appearance of anyone they don’t like. They do not have the right to disrupt events, shout down opponents or commit violence in support of their cause.

A number of bills were introduced in the Texas legislature during the last session that would have protected speakers from such harassment at public universities and colleges. Two died in committee, one passed the Senate and died in the House. Rest assured, they will be resurrected when the legislature reconvenes in Austin next year.

This issue is too important to ignore. If offended students and quiescent administrators think it’s going away, they’re in for a rude awakening.

Come to think of it, an awakening is just what they need.

A recent poll by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and YouGov found that more than half the students who responded have “stopped themselves from sharing an opinion or idea in class,” with many citing concerns that they will seem offensive or politically incorrect.  FIRE notes that nearly one in six universities maintain free speech zones, which restrict where students can make use of their First Amendment rights.

A  survey of 440 American universities found that nearly half have policies that seriously infringe on those rights.

And a Brookings Institution study found that nearly one in five college students surveyed said violence was an acceptable response against a speaker who voiced ideas different than their own.

Free speech zones and casual acceptance of violence as a tool to silence opponents have no place on college campuses – or anywhere else in the United States.

The whole point of college is to expose students to new ideas and challenge existing ones. How can they learn anything new if they’re never exposed to ideas that present a different world view? How will they ever learn to counter bad ideas with good ones if they’re sheltered from hearing anything with which they might disagree?

Ideally, the leaders of our state’s institutions of higher learning will take steps to correct existing problems so our legislators don’t have to. A few common-sense steps they could take are:

Repealing all speech codes and socalled free speech zones that unconstitutionally infringe on the rights of their students.

Making clear to everyone what is and is not permitted -- and making those rules viewpoint-neutral -- before imposing any restrictions on the time, place and manner of speech, and then only when ample alternative means of expression are provided.

Allowing students to freely demonstrate in public places, provided their conduct is lawful and does not materially disrupt the functioning of the institution.

If university administrators don’t act, the legislature should.

Freedom is messy. It should not – cannot – be hemmed in or heckled away by free speech zones or protesters who demand free speech for themselves while refusing to defend it for others.


Dustin Lane is Texas field director of Generation Opportunity.


San Marcos Daily Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666