BY HANK REICHMAN
In the wake of a series of incidents in which provocative and often offensive individuals, mostly from the right side of the political spectrum, have been prevented from speaking at college and university campuses, a number of state legislators have proposed — and a few have passed — legislation that would ostensibly protect free speech on campus. Last month the AAUP issued a statement opposing “any legislation that interferes with the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities by undermining the role of faculty, administration, and governing board in institutional decision-making and the role of students in the formulation and application of institutional policies affecting student affairs.” The statement added, “The appropriate institutional regulations on campus free speech and protest, the invitation of outside speakers, and student discipline should be adopted through normal channels of institutional governance, and such regulations should be consistent with Association-approved” policies.
I previously discussed these ill-conceived efforts in my post, “On Outside Speakers and Academic Freedom, Part III.” I noted how many of these proposals were based on a “model bill,” entitled the Campus Free Speech Act, prepared by the Goldwater Institute, a libertarian think tank, and Stanley Kurtz, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. In Tennessee, the proposed legislation was amended in such a manner that, according to John Wilson’s analysis on this blog, it became “a really good law that strongly protects free speech on campus.” But the picture has been more muddled in other states.
Now comes word that Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, yesterday vetoed a bill asking public colleges and universities in that state to punish students who interfere with “the free expression of others.” The bill, sponsored by House Republican Caucus Chairman Lance Harris of Alexandria, would have required colleges to adopt a statement saying they strive for free expression on campuses, won’t shield students from unwelcome or offensive speech and will permit protests and demonstrations. Had it become law, the Board of Regents would have had to create an Orwellian “committee on free expression” to report annually on controversies or barriers to free speech on campus.
Edwards described these requirements as “complex policies” that were “overly complicated” and would “only frustrate the goals it purports to achieve.” He called the bill “a solution in search of a problem” as well as “unnecessary and overly burdensome.”
“The protection of speech has survived and flourished in the 226 years since the adoption of the First Amendment, and it will continue to do so without House Bill 269 becoming the law of Louisiana,” Edwards wrote in a letter explaining his veto.
The final bill passed by the Legislature was significantly weakened from an initial version that required much more serious penalties for interfering with controversial speakers and guest appearances. According to a report on nola.com, “Provisions establishing mandatory penalties and allowing campuses to be sued were stripped by the Senate, largely ending legislative opposition to the bill. Instead, campuses were supposed to be able to decide any punishments for students who are deemed to be inhibiting free speech. The House voted 95-0 to pass Harris’ bill. The Senate vote was 30-2.”
Three cheers for Governor Edwards and shame on those legislators who, on a bipartisan basis, were willing to endorse such needless and potentially harmful legislation. Hopefully, other governors and legislators will take heed.
One state where Edwards’s message should be heard is Wisconsin, where the state Assembly has by a 61-36 margin approved “The Campus Free Speech Act,” a Republican-sponsored bill that would, in the words of Madison Capital Times editor John Nichols, “throw a wrench into the machinery of debate and discourse that underpins the Wisconsin Idea.”
Employing language similar to that used by Gov. Edwards in Louisiana, state Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, noted that “there are already numerous laws on the books that protect free speech and punish those who are violent or disruptive.” He argued: “The crisis that Wisconsin Republicans are addressing in this bill is a manufactured one aimed at limiting exposure to differing opinions and creating extreme, unwarranted, and unnecessary punishments for exercising your right to protest.”
Fortunately, owing largely to internal political frictions among Wisconsin Republicans, the bill now faces a questionable fate in the state Senate. According to a report in the Capital Times, Myranda Tanck, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said members “haven’t had a chance to discuss” the campus speech bill in a caucus. Although the bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges, which is led by one of its co-authors, Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, it has not been scheduled for a hearing or committee vote. The bill is now unlikely to be considered before the legislature’s next session begins September 12.
In the meantime AAUP members and other faculty leaders in Wisconsin will continue to oppose this dangerous legislation. (For more specifics on the Wisconsin legislation and the fight to defeat it, see my discussion in “On Outside Speakers and Academic Freedom, Part III.”)