BUTCHER: States Should Take The Lead In Protecting Free Speech On Campus


Jonathan Butcher Goldwater Institute
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Nowhere in the U.S. do individuals struggle more to listen and be heard than on college campuses.

Alabama lawmakers appear to agree. Earlier this month, Gov. Kay Ivey signed bipartisan legislation to protect free speech at public universities. Threats to free expression exist at institutions of higher education around the country, and Alabama is no exception.

Young America’s Foundation and the Alliance Defending Freedom wrote the University of Alabama a letter in 2017 decrying the school’s policy for handing out literature on campus. Last fall, the College Media Association censured the University of North Alabama (UNA) for withholding records from the student newspaper. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education calls Alabama A&M and UNA two of the nation’s “worst colleges for free speech” because of the schools’ speech codes.

Alabama’s new law aims to affirm expressive rights at state-run colleges and universities. It bars the schools from sanctioning faculty members or students for writing commentary or staging a demonstration opposing policies or positions taken by the school. Public colleges also can no longer create so-called “free-speech zones,” which actually restrained speech by restricting expressive activity to isolated areas of campus.

Borrowing from what is known as the “Chicago Statement,” a statement of purpose defending free expression produced by the University of Chicago, the Alabama law says, “All public institutions of higher education should…recognize that it is not their proper role to shield individuals from speech that … individuals may find unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.” Dozens of colleges and universities around the country have adopted similar language.

Alabama’s law contains provisions similar to those found in statutes recently adopted in Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina, as well as policies approved by the University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents. In 2016, Arizona lawmakers made all public areas of a campus — such as sidewalks and lawns — free speech zones. Arizona policymakers dealt with campus speech issues again in 2018, calling on university officials to consider consequences, including suspension and expulsion, for students that interfere with others’ attempts to speak freely on school grounds. Alabama’s proposal has similar provisions holding individuals responsible for their actions.

Such provisions protect all members of a campus community. Just as conservative speakers have faced physical threats and angry mobs on campus, so have progressive faculty found themselves the target of unhinged students. State lawmakers who are defending free expression should support everyone’s free speech rights.

President Trump’s recent executive order on campus speech made headlines, but we should be wary of federal attempts to change university operations. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told an audience last week, “As you can imagine at the federal level, everything takes a really long time because there’s lots of cooks in the kitchen.”

The executive order lacks detail, which may limit federal overreach for now, but this is why state officials should take the lead in protecting free speech on campus. If university administrators do not create a learning environment that allows students and educators to pursue truth, then college governing boards and state lawmakers must develop specific proposals to do so.

State lawmakers must protect the First Amendment, especially at postsecondary institutions — and not wait until our most cherished rights are under attack before doing so.

Jonathan Butcher is a senior policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy and a senior fellow at the Goldwater Institute.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.