Cynthia M. Allen

Texas universities need free speech protections

Students walk through the University of Texas at Austin campus in Austin in this file photo. The University of Texas System's Board of Regents recently approved tuition increases at its eight academic campuses.
Students walk through the University of Texas at Austin campus in Austin in this file photo. The University of Texas System's Board of Regents recently approved tuition increases at its eight academic campuses. AP

Last year, in the thick of the confirmation hearings for now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, students at the University of Texas at Austin engaged in a heated and at times physical confrontation about the nominee. Footage of the event shows at least one student tearing handmade signs from a small group of Kavanaugh supporters and ripping them to pieces.

In response, Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly and UT Police Chief David Carter condemned physical violence and threats and were quick to remind students that “free speech of UT community members is fully protected on campus.”

That was a specious claim.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonpartisan watchdog group that advocates for First Amendment rights on college campuses, UT Austin has at least one campus policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.

In fact, of the 19 Texas schools FIRE has reviewed, UT Austin is one of five to earn the organization’s “red light,” or lowest, rating. The University of Texas-Dallas and the University of North Texas are also among the state’s worst offenders.

Texas A&M is the only Texas school to earn a “green light” rating, and is close to adopting the exquisite pro-free-speech Chicago Statement as its policy, which has been endorsed by 55 other institutions, from Princeton to Purdue.

It’s unsettling, but hardly unusual, that some university campuses — once bastions of free-thinking and enlightenment — are now subject to speech codes, “free speech zones” and “safe spaces.” Where mobs of angry students can chase speakers from campus and intimidate into submission those who hold opposing or unpopular viewpoints.

Far worse though, is the fact that many university administrations not only allow this behavior, they defend it, often by implementing campus policies that intentionally discriminate against intellectual perspectives with which they disagree. This is sometimes achieved by canceling student-sponsored events, denying student groups permission to demonstrate or schedule speakers, and preventing students from distributing or posting fliers and other information.

And the reality is, in most cases the students and professors whose views are suppressed are conservative.

This national trend of free speech suppression prompted President Trump to issue an executive order intended to improve the free speech climate on college campuses.

But what will probably be more effective — not to mention less vague and certainly less controversial — are state-led initiatives to curb speech restrictions on campus, like the one currently moving through the Texas Legislature.

Senate Bill 18, by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R–Houston, passed out of committee without protest. If passed into law, it would require universities in Texas to create clear free-speech policies that protect students’ rights — including the ability of student organizations to invite speakers — from obstruction by administrations and disruptive student protestors.

The bill would also require public university administrations to be content-neutral toward speakers, effectively eliminating the so-called “Heckler’s Veto” which has been frequently used by administrations to preemptively cancel an event perceived to cause controversy or illicit protests on campus.

Laws that help protect First Amendment rights on college campuses shouldn’t be necessary. Our institutions of higher learning should be the safest places for controversial and unpopular ideas. They should be spaces where people of opposing views listen to each other with tolerance and respect and where the “adults in the room” facilitate difficult discussions that may not lead to agreement but will ultimately improve our understanding of perspectives that diverge from our own.

“When I listen to people with a different point of view or a different perspective or whatever it is they come in with, it’s an opportunity to learn,” remarked State Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, a supporter of the bill.

There’s a lot to be learned from our intellectual opponents — but we have to allow them to speak.