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It's Up to the States to Protect Free Speech on Campus

March 22, 2019

March 22, 2019
By Jonathan Butcher

A legislative proposal from Kentucky will generate fewer headlines than a White House announcement in the Rose Garden. Yet while this week’s federal order to protect free speech on college campuses is a welcome reminder of the need to restore First Amendment protections on campus, it trails the valuable activity in Kentucky and other states over the last two years.

Kentucky lawmakers sent a proposal to Gov. Matt Bevin’s desk this week that responds to the utter contempt for free speech demonstrated on many campuses today. The proposal is an appropriate initial measure that curbs the practice of disinviting speakers based on his or her beliefs and does away with so-called “free speech zones” that sequester free expression to small areas of the college grounds.

Campus censorship has been widely documented around the country and changed many colleges from places of inquiry to institutions of limitation.

Kentucky’s proposal is a good start, but lawmakers should be prepared to expand on these ideas. No one in a public campus community should be allowed to interfere with someone else’s attempts to be heard. Lawmakers should direct public university governing boards to create policies that consider consequences for students that disrupt campus events or shout down faculty or invited lecturers, up to and including suspension or expulsion. Violations of the law, such as assaults and arson, should be referred to the proper authorities, but university administrators must stop ignoring the “heckler’s veto.”

As explained in the Goldwater Institute’s free speech work and The Heritage Foundation’s research, students accused of violating someone else’s rights should, at a minimum, be informed of the charges against them and have the opportunity to find appropriate representation prior to campus hearings. When combined with potential consequences for violating free expression, these due process rights form a protocol for dealing with free speech violations.

Public colleges and universities should take responsibility for the culture of fear and restriction created by shout downs, and they can start by holding accountable those involved. State officials in Arizona, North Carolina, and Wisconsin have adopted proposals that do so.

Likewise, Kentucky legislators should look to these states for measures that prohibit a public institution from taking action against a student or professor who offers an opinion contrary to an official university position. Members of the campus community should be able to speak freely and without fear of reprisal from school administration, especially concerning a contemporary issue. 

These specific solutions are appropriate at the state level, and the White House does not appear to have interfered with these proposals in the executive order issued this week. The order calls for federal agencies that award taxpayer-funded research grants to consider whether a school is abiding by existing laws that protect free speech as the agencies award such funding. Twice the order directs agencies and schools to keep implementation efforts within the bounds of the law and the Constitution, a welcome show of restraint.

The president appropriately raised the profile of the campus free speech crisis and seems to have prevented the expansion of federal authority. Now, the task remains for state policymakers in Kentucky and elsewhere to defend academic freedom and stop sheltering students from new ideas.  

Jonathan Butcher is a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.



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