Federal and State Leaders Take Promising Steps Towards Protecting Campus Free Speech
In a year dotted with free speech violations and controversies on college campuses, this week officials at both the federal and state level are demonstrating an increased awareness of the issue and are taking action. On October 24, both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas took promising steps, taking valuable initiative.
The Justice Department filed a statement of interest in a California campus speech case challenging a restrictive 616 square-foot free speech zone at Los Angeles Pierce College. The statement of interest argues in favor of the plaintiff, student Kevin Shaw, who was prohibited from handing out Spanish-language copies of the Constitution outside his community college’s official Free Speech Area. It is encouraging to see the federal government defend a student who is showing great determination in standing up to clear violations of his Constitutional freedoms. For the many students facing similar attacks across the country, this is a victory and a heartening move in the right direction.
The statement is the second of its kind put out by the Department of Justice (DOJ) under Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions reiterated his recommitment of the agency to defend and ensure First Amendment rights on campuses and called on university administrators and faculty to “defend free expression boldly and unequivocally.” The first was filed on September 26 in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski.
In Texas, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick included campus free speech in his list of interim legislative charges for the state senate. The lieutenant governor has asked the State Affairs Committee to “make sure there are no restrictions on the right of Texas students to express their views on campus.” The charge also asks the committee to examine freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and right to assembly on Texas campuses. Finally, he asked the committee to “Recommend policy changes that protect First Amendment rights and enhance the free speech environment on campus.”
The ALEC model policy, the Forming Open and Robust University Minds (FORUM) Act, addresses the specific issues that have caught the attention of the DOJ and Texas. It eliminates restrictive free speech zones, instead of allowing students to express themselves across their campuses. It also requires administrators, faculty and campus police to understand their responsibilities regarding free expression on campus. If violations of rights do occur, it allows people like Kevin Shaw to bring a cause of action to court. On the goal of protecting the full range of First Amendment rights stated by Lt. Gov. Patrick and others, the FORUM Act also protects students and student groups from disciplinary action because of their lawful expression, including belief-based organizations.
By making First Amendment rights on college campuses a priority, leaders like Attorney General Sessions and Lieutenant Governor Patrick are poised to make a difference not only in the specific cases they pursue but across the country as legislators and other leaders watch, learn and hopefully, follow suit. With policies that enhance free speech environments by lifting restrictions and protecting everyone’s right to speak, protest and counter-protest lawfully, college campuses can be the centers of exchanging ideas they were meant to be.