Collision between campus free speech and heckling confounds lawmakers


Highlights

“No one should be shouted down,” said Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who chairs the State Affairs Committee.

Senators seemed to agree that no one has the right not to be offended.

Incidents of hecklers shouting down controversial figures on college campuses are anathema to free speech but pose a difficult challenge to overcome, a state Senate panel chairwoman said Wednesday.

“No one should be shouted down,” said Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, whose State Affairs Committee held a hearing on campus free speech issues hosted by Texas State University. “We need to put an end to that. But you can’t legislate morality or civility — I get that.”

The panel has been charged by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick with recommending “policy changes that protect First Amendment rights and enhance the free speech environment on campus.”

BACKGROUND: Clashes at Texas colleges highlighted free speech issues in 2017

Witnesses offered a variety of suggestions to counter heckling, including stepped-up educational efforts aimed at encouraging people who find the speech of others offensive to respond with their own speech at a separate forum. Other suggestions included escorting hecklers away if they persist despite warnings to dial it back, or even suspending or expelling students who are serial hecklers. Panel members seemed open to the notion that legislation could encourage or require the educational approach, but it wasn’t clear if they would favor an enforcement component.

A consensus among panel members seemed to emerge on one point at the hearing, which Brantley Starr, deputy first assistant attorney general, summed up this way: “There is no constitutional or statutory right to not be offended.”

Some of the senators expressed concern about an incident in October, when Texas Southern University in Houston halted a speech by state Rep. Briscoe Cain, a tea party Republican from Deer Park, after student protesters showed up. Rafael Moffett, vice president of student affairs for the historically black school, said the event had not been booked with the university and therefore lacked sufficient staffing, security and audiovisual equipment.

Senators also seemed to agree that schools should not have free speech zones and instead should allow speech essentially anywhere, subject to reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner. Officials of the University of Texas System, Texas A&M University System and Texas Tech University System said their campuses do not have free speech zones.

Texas State had free speech zones but abolished them about five years ago, said the university’s president, Denise Trauth. “We allow anyone to speak outdoors on our campuses (in San Marcos and Round Rock) as long as they do not disrupt the learning environment,” she said.

Political and social views at Texas State range from well to the right to well to the left, and the school strives to accommodate all, Trauth said. “My job is to ensure that those voices across the spectrum will be heard,” she said.

Trauth has exercised free speech rights herself, such as when she sharply criticized a student’s opinion column in the University Star, the student newspaper, that railed against whiteness under a headline that read “Your DNA is an abomination.”

Kate McCarty, a former president of the New York City-based College Media Association, said university administrators should have been equally quick to condemn the harsh response that the column’s author and University Star staff members received in the aftermath of its publication, including death threats.

What’s more, McCarty said, the university’s response has seemed tepid when the campus was peppered with white supremacist and anti-Semitic flyers. The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks distribution of such materials at college campuses, counted 11 such incidents at Texas State since September 2016.

Rudy Martinez, the senior philosophy major who wrote the controversial column, told the senators that Texas State is “a deeply flawed institution” more interested in silencing than protecting minority voices.

Tony McDonald, general counsel for Empower Texans, said he sees a gap between the lofty policies of the UT System and their implementation. McDonald, who was a member of the Young Conservatives of Texas while a UT-Austin student, said the school charged the group a security fee because of protesters.

“Security fees should not be charged to a student group because they have an event that somebody else shows up to protest,” McDonald said.

University spokesman J.B. Bird said in an email that student and outside groups are charged security fees based on the size and complexity of an event, but that the fees do not take protesters into account. “This is by design, so that the process is content-neutral, adheres to constitutional law and reflects the university’s commitment to free speech,” Bird said.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said any guidelines the Legislature crafts regarding free speech on college campuses must be “clear and fair.”



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