One of the first opinion pieces for which I received an award was on a small-town mayor who came to the local elementary school to promote a city tax issue coming up for a vote. The editorial criticized the mayor’s action not because he didn’t have a right to speak there, but because it was delivered to a captive audience of children not old enough to vote and the school didn’t invite anyone to provide a counterpoint.
Those children had no choice but to attend the assembly at which the presentation was made, and the clear objective was for the children to go home and sell their parents on the need for their taxes to go up. To those of us on that newspaper’s editorial board, children should not be unwittingly commissioned to be political lobbyists.
In a college environment, where all the students are old enough to vote and make up their own minds, that mayor could preach like an old-time revivalist about whatever he wanted. At least, he should be able to.
Unlike that captive audience of elementary school children, college students have the absolute right to ignore a political speaker who comes to campus, just as they can ignore military recruiters, credit card solicitors and everyone else who camps out in the main gathering areas.
It’s the American way.
A bill authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, seeks to ensure speakers of all stripes do not have their free speech rights trampled by public colleges and universities in Texas. The measure, a popular one in red states everywhere, is in response to conservative speakers being disinvited from speaking engagements after students rise up in protest of that speaker’s political views.
Huffman’s bill also would establish a process for addressing complaints of potential free speech violations while still allowing universities to put restrictions on the time, place and manner of free speech activities.
All of which seems reasonable. Another provision, however, is too vague and leaves itself open for abuse.
The provision reads a university must “establish disciplinary sanctions for students or student organizations who unduly interfere with the expressive activities of others on campus.” It also calls for a grievance procedure for addressing such complaints to be spelled out by the school.
Where the stipulation runs afoul is in who will get to decide what constitutes someone unduly interfering with the event.
It’s pretty clear it could be imposed if Antifa shows up and starts beating a bunch of co-eds because a white nationalist is speaking in a campus hall — though other laws with more serious consequences would cover those actions. But what if it’s a group of protestors forming a line in front of the hall calling people names to discourage people from entering, as happens outside abortion clinics? Do those protestors lose their free speech rights?
America in the 21st century should not require laws forcing that the peaceful expression of ideas be allowed at public institutions. Whether it is white supremacist Richard Spencer, who had his invitation to speak at Texas A&M quashed by protestors in 2017, or African American hate-monger Louis Farrakhan, they should have an equal opportunity to speak. Others should be given an equal opportunity to protest their presence.
As Huffman’s legislation spells out, the point of view shouldn’t inhibit those rights. Policies should be content-neutral and consistently applied, with both sides able to freely express their ideas and objections to those ideas.
The bill is headed to a conference committee after it passed out of the House with amendments not to Huffman’s liking. The Senate has appointed its conferees, but the House has not, leaving little time for a compromise to actually take place.
Should the legislation die, however, universities should on their own take steps to create viewpoint-neutral guidelines for campus speakers that allow for a genuine airing of ideas, no matter how distasteful they might be. People have a right to hear those ideas, and just as much right to let them be spoken into empty rooms.