Model Bill to Protect Free Speech on Campus
A Bill For State Lawmakers To Protect Free Speech On Their Campuses
Much as administrators and faculty dislike it, the fact is that public colleges are subject to both the First Amendment and the state legislatures that fund them. Legislators shouldn’t micromanage the campuses, but they must set some basic rules.
One of those rules should be that free speech and open inquiry will be protected.
You might find it surprising that academics need to be told to protect free speech and inquiry, but American campuses have become increasingly intolerant of speech that conflicts with “progressive” orthodoxy. I have often written about the rules imposed by campus officials that run afoul of the First Amendment, such as the speech infringement at Iowa State and the miniscule “free speech zone” at Grand Valley State.
Conservative and libertarian speakers have frequently been shouted down or disinvited from giving a scheduled address; students who say something that hurts someone’s feelings are likely to face charges brought by a “bias incident” team. In one of the most shameful events of all, a speaker at the University of Wisconsin, Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity, was prevented from completing his off-campus talk when a mob of students that had been organized by a school administrator broke into the room where he was discussing the evidence of racial preferences in UW admissions.
Hitting the nail squarely on the head, in his January 31 Wall Street Journal column, Professor Peter Berkowitz wrote, “The yawning gap between universities’ role as citadels of free inquiry and the ugly reality of campus censorship is often the fault of administrators who share the progressive belief that universities must restrict speech to protect the sensitivities of minorities and women. They often capitulate to the loudest and angriest demonstrators just to get controversies off the front page.”
Precisely. College administrators often find it easier to allow zealous and intolerant activists to have their way. Sometimes they’re complicit. It is time for state legislators to assert themselves and restore the First Amendment and its values on the campuses they are responsible for.
A model bill to accomplish that has recently been drafted by the Goldwater Institute.
One of the three drafters is Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. In an article published February 1 by the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, Kurtz explained the importance of free speech. He wrote, “Freedom is not a license to attack your foes. License of that sort is the opposite of freedom. If you want to understand freedom, consider what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the Supreme Court famously said in 1929: ‘If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls out for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.’”
Kurtz continued, “If true freedom of speech is ‘freedom for the thought that we hate,’ then freedom is actually a form of self-mastery. Far from being license, true freedom is actually an act of self-control, a refusal to physically extinguish even the speech we abhor.”
He’s right, but a lesson that too few college students ever learn is that as civilized people, they need to exert self-mastery and tolerate speech they disagree with.
The bill would restore free speech on campus through several means.
First and foremost, schools would have to eliminate speech codes, speech zones, and other policies that unreasonably restrict speech.
They would also have to discipline students who break the free speech rules.
Another provision is that state colleges and universities would have to include in their orientations a discussion of the importance of free speech and tolerance for dissenting views. While it doesn’t specify this, schools should consider assigning John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty in addition to or perhaps instead of the “summer book” they often assign to incoming students. That would be far more instructive than the usual soppy, politically-themed books they usually choose – see this report by the National Association of Scholars in that regard.
And capping everything off, the bill requires the creation of a Committee on Free Expression within the board of trustees of each state college and university. These committees would be charged with issuing a yearly report on the status of free expression on campus, a report that would go to the governor, the state legislature, and be available to the public. This obligation would, Kurtz argues, create a counterforce to the pressure that anti-free speech agitators put on school officials.
Summing up his case for the bill, Kurtz writes, “By strongly affirming the core principles of free expression, creating a discipline policy for those who interfere with the freedom of others, informing students of the principles of free speech and the penalty for disregarding it, and then holding administrators publicly accountable for failure to enforce the provisions of the bill, the model bill is designed to create a virtuous cycle that will prevent speaker shout-downs and disinvitations from ever happening in the first place.”
When the model bill is introduced in state legislatures, as it surely will be, the results will be interesting. In “deep blue” states, it will probably never get a hearing. In other states, lobbyists for the state university systems are apt to argue that the bill is unnecessary because they already have a proper commitment to free speech and don’t need any outside interference.
The problem with that argument is that at many schools the commitment to free speech is merely skin-deep. Outside “interference” is exactly what is needed.
The model bill should be introduced, debated, and perhaps improved upon. The legislative process by itself will shine light on the poor state of free speech on our campuses and where the bill is enacted it will shore up one of the most important foundations of our democracy.
Originally published on Forbes.