Bill seeks to clarify free speech protections on college campuses

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While the freedom of speech is protected under the Constitution, some universities across the country have implemented strict speech codes and free speech zones. 

The Senate’s Higher Education Committee discussed Senate Bill 1151, authored by state Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, Wednesday. The bill would emphasize students’ free speech rights, require institutions to implement a policy explicitly outlining their rights and ban institutions from punishing students solely on the basis of expressing free speech. 

“The committee substitute to Senate Bill 1151 is intended to provide greater clarity in the growing controversy over what speech is protected,” Buckingham said. “Institutions of higher education have always been a place of learning and growing and the open dialogue of ideas, even those you may disagree with.”

Under the bill, Buckingham defines free speech as speech or expressive conduct protected by both the U.S. Constitution and the Texas Constitution. This includes the right to assemble, protest, distribute written material, carry signs or circulate petitions on campuses. 

UT-Austin does not have a “speech code” said Shilpa Bakre, communications strategist for the University. The University does lay out principles for speech, expression and assembly in their student catalogue, which include policies for speakers on campus, signs and obscene or harassing speech. 

“The University is committed to the principles of free inquiry and expression and is dedicated to creating an environment where the expansion of knowledge and the freedom to exchange ideas is safeguarded,” Bakre said in an email. “As such, members of the University community have the right to hold, vigorously defend and express their ideas and opinions, and for such ideas and opinions to flourish or wither according to their merits.”

Another provision of the bill would require institutions to establish a policy expressly stating students’ free speech rights. This policy must be approved by the regents and communicated to the students. 

Because it is up to the universities to develop these policies, they could include provisions that limit speech, state Sen. Kirk Watson said. 

“I think we have adequate case law to deal with first amendment rights,” Watson said.

Citing a recent incident at the University of California, Berkeley where students rioted to protest a speaker on campus, state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Galveston, said the bill may allow students to riot and tear up the campus. Taylor said he was, however, in favor of strongly protecting students’ free speech rights. 

“The whole idea of University students learning and growing, learning new things they never thought of before, that’s what’s supposed to happen,” Taylor said. “But if you have one group so forceful that they don’t allow another group to express their opinion, we’ve lost the battle.”

State Sen. Kel Seliger questioned if this bill would have a significant impact since speech is already protected in the Constitution and asked if the bill was just a restatement of the Constitution. 

Buckingham said her bill is not a restatement of the Constitution and aims to ensure students don’t fear retribution from their institutions. 

Of the two witnesses who testified in favor of the bill, Thomas Lindsay, director of the center for higher education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said the first amendment and right to free speech are fundamental to American democracy. 

“I think this is a worthy bill,” Lindsay said. “It seeks to address a crisis that is all too present in today’s headlines.” 

The committee did not vote on the bill Wednesday.