Students tell their stories in new free speech booklet

Debate-Blog

Protecting free speech on campus will be on the docket again in many states as lawmakers begin their sessions in the coming weeks. Texas will be one, if TPPF’s Policy Orientation is any indication (Stanley Kurtz, who co-authored the Goldwater Institute’s 2017 report along with me and Jim Manley of the Pacific Legal Foundation, was on the agenda).

There’s still no shortage of threats to free speech. In just the first week of the new year, reports surfaced that a Princeton group rescinded its invitation to UPenn professor Amy Wax last fall based on some of Wax’s commentary on social problems such as male unemployment and opioid abuse. Irony abounds here, as Wax had written in the Wall Street Journal last February that

There is a lot of abstract talk these days on American college campuses about free speech and the values of free inquiry, with lip service paid to expansive notions of free expression and the marketplace of ideas. What I’ve learned through my recent experience of writing a controversial op-ed is that most of this talk is not worth much. It is only when people are confronted with speech they don’t like that we see whether these abstractions are real to them.

To students who have had their attempts at free expression blocked, the abstractions are very real:

“I refused to accept the school policies that infringed on the students’ First Amendment rights,” said Jeff Lyons, the student who created the local chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) at Bunker Hill Community College. Bunker Hill students had been prohibited from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution, and YAL and their allies pushed back defending their right to do so.

At UVA, where campus officials sent an email saying that students should call 911 if they see a flyer or poster that offends them, student Kevin McMahon says it’s hard to schedule anything at which meaningful social and policy issues are on the agenda. “I’d want more than anything for someone [who disagrees with a speaker] to come to one of these events,” he said in an interview.

Heritage’s new booklet on protecting free speech features these comments and more from undergrads in the thick of campus battles. The brief includes a guide to the most common terms in the free speech debate (“Heckler’s Veto,” anyone?) and provides seven key ideas for state lawmakers looking to protect free speech. The Princeton, Bunker Hill, and UVA incidents–among others–illustrate why state legislative action is needed. On the list of key policy provisions in the booklet are requirements that public college systems adopt mission statements in favor of free speech on campus; provisions that allow anyone lawfully present on campus to protest or demonstrate in public areas; and guidance on designing rules for considering the suspension and expulsion of students that have disrupted events or committed similar actions.

Students need to be heard on this issue. What’s more, lawmakers should be reminded of these students’ experiences until the incidents themselves are no longer repeated.

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