FIRE is pleased to see that several state legislatures are considering bills that would protect free speech rights on campus. One of the latest states to introduce legislation on campus free speech is Texas. Indeed, Texas legislators actually have two bills pending that would provide essential protections for free speech on campus.
The first, HB 2527, is modeled on FIRE’s Campus Free Expression Act and sponsored by State Representatives Briscoe Cain and Matt Shaheen. That bill would protect the rights of all people to engage in any expressive activity protected under the First Amendment, including “assemblies, protests, speeches, the distribution of written material, the carrying of signs, and the circulation of petitions,” on open, outdoor areas of campus. Unfortunately, this legislation is necessary, given that roughly 1 in 10 institutions of higher education limit students’ ability to engage in expressive activities by quarantining those activities to misleadingly labeled “free speech” zones. Similar legislation aimed at fixing this problem has passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in Virginia, Missouri, and Arizona in recent years.
The second bill, SB 1151, is sponsored by State Senator Dawn Buckingham and contains language similar to that in the first bill. This bill, however, would also address several other kinds of campus censorship. For example, it would prohibit campus administrators from disinviting speakers invited to campus by members of the campus community.
This provision “prohibits any institution official or employee from disinviting a speaker who has been requested to speak at the institution by members of the university community.” As our disinivitation database demonstrates, campaigns to prevent controversial speakers from giving talks on campus are all too common and often successful. In the last few years there have been organized efforts to get speaking invitations rescinded from Condoleeza Rice, Madeleine Albright, John Boehner, Joe Biden, and Bill Maher. Just last month, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at University of California, San Diego argued that the Dalai Lama’s scheduled commencement address should be cancelled.
SB 1151 would also prevent public institutions from using overbroad anti-harassment codes to punish students for engaging in protected speech by requiring institutions to define peer-on-peer harassment using the definition provided by the U.S. Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999). That definition set the legal line for when speech in an educational environment becomes harassing conduct that loses the protection of the First Amendment and for which universities may be privately liable. Unfortunately, legislation like SB 1151 is necessary because too many schools ignore the Davis standard by prohibiting and punishing speech that is clearly protected under the First Amendment.
FIRE is grateful that Representatives Cain and Shaheen and Senator Buckingham are fighting for free speech on college campuses.