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Risks Are Too Great if State Lawmakers Do Not Protect Campus Speech

June 25, 2019

June 25, 2019
By Jonathan Butcher

It’s a child’s game to pretend that when you close your eyes, other people can’t see you. It’s also foolish to think that if you ignore something you don’t like, it’s not really there.

Yet writers from the nonprofit PEN America try to ignore the challenges—threats, even—to First Amendment rights and physical safety posed by violent mobs, speaker shoutdowns, and other forms of censorship on college campuses today. By doing so, they underestimate the damage done to postsecondary education and disregard the poison injected into civil society when these students graduate.

In the Washington Post, PEN researchers said new state proposals to protect free speech on campus “dampen [students’ right to protest] in troubling ways.” However, in their seemingly innocent list of campus demonstrations such as sit-ins and walkouts, PEN fails to include the student who committed physical assault when faced with ideas with which she disagreed; violent mob activity; and chaos over a speech-related issue that drove professors into hiding at a progressive public college in Washington state. Or the college presidents who were chased off a stage. Or the state lawmakers who were shouted down on campus. These are not innocuous examples of picketing on a sidewalk. These behaviors put students, faculty, and any number of invited guests including elected officials at risk of injury, along with violating their expressive rights.

PEN argues that new provisions to restore free speech on campus in states such as Alabama, Arizona, and North Carolina could “chill” discourse because students may face sanctions, including suspension or expulsion, if they violate someone else’s right to speak (similar proposals are also in place in Georgia and in the Wisconsin state university system’s governing policies). These state proposals follow the design of a 2017 Goldwater Institute paper authored by Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Jim Manley of the Pacific Legal Foundation, and myself.

The authors’ arguments fall short. They cite an example from Utah—which is irrelevant because that state has not enacted a proposal with the same provisions as those in Arizona and North Carolina. (And in this instance, in which students were detained and questioned for unveiling a banner at an event, police said the students who were involved were being disruptive.) The authors’ example from a private college in Wisconsin is also not applicable because private schools are not subject to the same provisions as public universities in that state.

PEN uses a recent incident at the University of Arizona to argue that Arizona’s free-speech protections put students in “danger.” According to PEN, protesting students “spoke from outside the classroom” and objected to a talk by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. In fact, as I explained in April for the Daily Signal, student protestors were disruptive inside a campus building, where schools already (before lawmakers enacted additional speech protections in 2016 and 2018) have the responsibility to maintain order. Stanley Kurtz covered this episode for National Review Online. The only students in danger or whose rights were jeopardized were those listening to the speakers.

Meanwhile, PEN offers no alternative to these state proposals. Today, the chaos on campuses around the U.S. have made students less willing to discuss difficult topics. As I wrote in this space in May, 68 percent of student respondents to a Knight Foundation survey said “their campus climate precludes students from expressing their true opinions because their classmates might find them offensive,” an increase over last year’s survey. Sixteen percent say it is “always” or “sometimes” acceptable to use violence to stop a presentation—behavior that is not appropriate in adult life.

PEN’s statement that “dissent is crucial in the marketplace of ideas” is correct and should be treated as more than just an aphorism. If we want spoiled children to become entitled adults, then by all means, shield them from the results of his or her decisions. And woe to the society that inherits them.

Anyone who is lawfully present on campus, on both sides of an issue, should be allowed to demonstrate as long as they do not interfere with someone else’s attempt to do the same (Arizona states this intent in the proposal). Adults on campus should not be training young people to be college students—they must be preparing them for adulthood.

Jonathan Butcher is a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.



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