Legislatures consider free speech bills

Dive Brief:

  • An array of state legislatures are considering bills that would target the “free-speech zones” of public colleges and universities, and try to mandate procedures that would allow schools to punish individuals who “disrupt” speakers who have been invited to the campus, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Many of the bills have been modeled on designs by the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, while an organization representing university professors said it was opposed to any bills that undermined the authority of college faculties and staff to make their own decisions in regards to campus matters.
  • Several of the introduced bills could make it mandatory to suspend or expel students who violate free speech policies at colleges and universities. Republican lawmakers said it was important to ensure free expression is not endangered on the campuses of public colleges.

Dive Insight:

As political polarization continues to increase in the country at large, contentious arguments are becoming more commonplace on college campuses as well. Several recent instances of protests that turned violent on college campuses in response to conservative speakers received widespread criticism. Most would agree that violence is uncalled for, but the concern regarding these new pieces of legislation is questioning at what point protesting a speaker on campus becomes an “infringement” on the right of that speaker to speak or the audience to hear?

Proposed legislation in Illinois, for example, would require public colleges and universities to suspend or expel students who twice infringe on the “expressive rights” of others, including speakers invited to campus. It is under the purview of a state legislature to mandate the upkeep of free speech protections on the grounds of a public college or university.

But the difficult test will be when those colleges are faced with a situation where the line between a free response to free speech and an infringement of rights is decidedly unclear. In the case of a riot, the question is easy, but what of a protest outside of where a controversial speaker is conducting a talk? By disallowing protest in the attempt to respect the free speech of a speaker, would colleges be violating the free speech of the protestors?

In light of increased concerns about how the rights of protesters are being protected by state legislatures in the wake of the recent presidential election, it seems possible that the gray line between free speech protest and infringing actions will be the next battle line in this increasingly loud debate. Unfortunately, the fact that it pits primarily conservative college speakers against primarily liberal protesters means that the discussion that is necessary about how to best ensure the free speech of all involved will be tied up in an increasingly bitter political conflict.

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Filed Under: Higher Ed Policy & Regulation
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