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State Lawmakers Must Stand up to Those Who Threaten Free Speech on Campus

February 11, 2019

by Jonathan Butcher

February 11, 2019

A few weeks ago, I talked to Clemson University student Morgan Bailey, chair of the local chapter of Young Americans for Freedom. In 2018, her group set up a pro-life display, with signs and white crosses marking “the lives lost to abortion,” but the display was vandalized. At the time, the incident received little attention; CampusReform covered the story, but local South Carolina media largely ignored the news.

The re-introduction of a legislative proposal to protect free speech on South Carolina’s college campuses, modeled after the Goldwater Institute’s work with Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Jim Manley of the Pacific Legal Foundation, and myself, has given Morgan’s experience and those like hers the attention they are due.

As I wrote in the Charleston Post and Courier in late January, “over the past three years, students and faculty on both sides of political debates have had their voices silenced. Some have even been physically threatened because of their beliefs.” While cameras captured the vandalism at Clemson, the perpetrators were not found, and the university did not issue any consequences.

Stories like this one are no longer a surprise. From invited speakers being chased off of campus to college presidents being shouted down, disrupting another’s right to be heard has become an altogether too common occurrence at universities around the country.

South Carolina’s neighbors to the north and south have taken action in recent years to protect free expression on public college campuses. North Carolina adopted key provisions from the Goldwater Institute’s proposal in 2017, and Georgia lawmakers adopted similar ideas just last year (policymakers in Arizona and Wisconsin have also added these protections to state law or state university governing board policies).  

Again, from my piece in the Post and Courier: “South Carolina officials are taking notice. Legislators are considering a proposal to protect free speech on campus that requires public colleges and universities to adopt a mission statement in favor of free speech and include a review of the statement during freshman orientation.” State Sen. Larry Grooms (R-Berkeley), the sponsor of the proposal, cited Morgan’s experience when talking with The State, the Columbia, South Carolina, newspaper. In a confusing headline, the paper titled the story “Should colleges have less say over student free speech? SC lawmakers think so,” obscuring the fact that public spaces such as sidewalks and lawns on public college campuses should be open to anyone lawfully present there. While schools must maintain order so that students can study, students should not have to leave their First Amendment rights at home when they leave for college.

Sen. Grooms’ proposal is not an effort to undermine state colleges and universities—it’s an attempt to prevent censorship. Morgan’s experience is one of nearly two dozen such incidents involving free expression at Clemson alone dating back to 2006, as Stanley Kurtz documented in National Review Online last year.

Grooms told The State that the bill will do away with so-called “free speech zones,” typically small areas of campus that schools designate for distributing flyers or holding demonstrations. The proposal also says that students and faculty are free to write or speak on issues that are important to them regardless of whether the school has adopted a specific stance on that subject. Schools can also consider a range of disciplinary sanctions—including suspension and expulsion—if a student repeatedly violates someone else’s attempt to be heard. Students accused of such violations would have due process protections so that they would be informed of the charges against them and could find representation as needed.

Proposals like these should restore free speech on campus, allowing those on both sides of an issue to be heard. As I wrote in the Post and Courier, “It is not a university’s role to protect students from new ideas, offensive or otherwise. Allowing one student to silence another because the former takes offense does neither student any favors.”

Jonathan Butcher is a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.



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