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Up for Debate at the University of Virginia: How Will Campus Free Speech Survive?

November 14, 2018

by Christy Allen
November 14, 2018

Violence on this campus. Shout-downs on that campus. Speakers disinvited left and right. Events like these are all too commonplace today at universities across the country. It’s hard not to ask the question: Will free speech survive on college campuses?

On November 1, the Law Republicans at the University of Virginia hosted a debate on a slightly different question: How will free speech survive on college campuses? One answer may be the Goldwater Institute’s model campus free speech legislation, which provides legal and disciplinary sanctions for students who infringe on the free expression rights of others, in addition to mandating various university actions to ensure speech rights of all are taken seriously. (You can read the full model bill here.)

Are laws like this the answer to dealing with the campus free speech problem? Or would legal sanction for threatening free speech rights on campuses actually chill speech, harming the very end the bill seeks to protect?

At the UVA discussion, Goldwater Institute Senior Fellow Jonathan Butcher, who co-authored the model legislation from which the state of Virginia crafted their own campus speech law, explained that students have both a “right to think [differently] and to say it.” Yet Butcher outlined story after story where this right goes disrespected on campuses.

“When administrators allow disturbances such as shout-downs to continue, it hurts everyone,” Butcher said. “Beyond those whose First Amendment rights are infringed, this especially harms those who wish to be exposed to new ideas,” he continued.

But Appalachian State University Professor Michael Behrent worried that the Goldwater model is overbroad and would result in chilling speech on all parts of campus, not just those spaces considered to be public forums. While Behrent agreed that protecting students’ free speech rights is important, he expressed concerns that the Goldwater model’s provisions would hinder, rather than protect, those rights.

But Butcher showed that the Goldwater model is already working: Would-be protestors of an event in Wisconsin, where the bill was largely adopted, expressly stated that they refrained from disturbing an event because they knew of the disciplinary sanctions that would result thanks to the change in the law.

Law schools—places of First Amendment study—are not immune from censorship, intolerance, or political correctness. “This event demonstrates how these kinds of conversations ought to be going in our society and on our campus: people listening to one another’s viewpoints and responding with insightful, rather than just emotional, arguments,” said one audience member, a third-year law student. “Having nuanced conversations in which all are willing to engage one another and find common ground is a useful exercise here and everywhere.”

Indeed. Providing a space where students have the opportunity to engage in thoughtful conversations and debates, free from censorship of any kind by university officials and peers, is exactly what the Goldwater model bill seeks to achieve. You can read more about the Goldwater Institute’s efforts to preserve free expression on college campuses at

Christy Allen is a third-year law student at the University of Virginia and a Ronald Reagan Fellow and law clerk at the Goldwater Institute.



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