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A Solution to the Campus Free-Speech Crisis

September 14, 2017 - 2:13pm CDT

By Jonathan Butcher

When you suggest that someone should act like an adult and then that person demands you be fired, you’re either part of a reality TV show or on a college campus. Ratings guard free speech in the former, while free speech is in peril in the latter. At many of America’s colleges and universities, an obsession with safe spaces and safe ideas is poisoning higher education and stifling those on both sides of the political spectrum.

Exhibit A is Northern Arizona University, where President Rita Cheng said earlier this year she wasn’t sure she supported “safe spaces”—cordoned-off areas of campus reserved for students to avoid ideas with which they don’t agree. “I think that you as a student have to develop the skills to be successful in this world and that we need to provide you with the opportunity for discourse and debate,” said Cheng. Students wanted none of it and called for her resignation.

At Evergreen State College in Washington state, a school that calls itself “progressive,” students shouted down professor Bret Weinstein after he said white members of the campus community should not be forced to leave campus for a day. Weinstein, a 14-year veteran of the school, was a supporter of both Occupy Wall Street and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Yet Evergreen State students wanted him silenced for daring to voice what they viewed as nonconformist ideas.

Students succeeded in rattling the administration. Evergreen officials moved graduation off-campus and closed campus twice prior to the ceremony, all because of student uprisings and threats of violence that followed. And protestors were excused from homework assignments during their demonstrations.

Oklahoma campuses are not immune. In 2016, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education named the University of Oklahoma and the University of Tulsa among the 10 worst colleges in the U.S. for free speech. The University of Tulsa earned the distinction not only for suspending a student because of a message posted on social media, but also for threatening the student newspaper with discipline because of the paper’s coverage of the activity. 

To restore free speech to its rightful place on campus, the Goldwater Institute partnered with Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and designed a model bill for state lawmakers to protect free expression (available at bit.ly/2tfKKT0). Legislators in Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Louisiana, North Carolina, and California have considered bills based on the legislation this year. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has voiced his support for such legislation.

Our model legislation also includes a requirement that campus officials communicate the school’s commitment to free speech at freshman orientation. For University of Oklahoma students, this should be mandatory in order to counterbalance the five-hour diversity training requirement and new Bias Response Team. Bias response teams are notorious around the country for anonymous reporting of perceived slights that result in laborious investigations and create a culture of suspicion, not free ideas. Oklahoma’s universities need look no further than to OCPA’s Andrew Spiropoulos or Trent England for help with free-speech orientation sessions.

“The university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom,” wrote the authors of Yale’s “Woodward Report,” a seminal document on protecting free speech released some 40 years ago. Nearly a half-century later, schools across the country are failing to protect free expression—some embarrassingly so.

State lawmakers should consider the primacy of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, an idea on which so many other freedoms rest, and make their most important gift to young adults an appreciation of the same.

Recommendations
Our model bill requires state universities to make the protection of free speech a priority, starting at the top:

  • Schools must take an official policy in favor of free speech and make this statement readily available on campus documents, such as student conduct handbooks;
  • A subcommittee of the university board must issue a report each year on the condition of free speech across campuses in the state system;
  • Administrators may not disinvite speakers, regardless of how controversial such speakers may be;
  • Anyone lawfully present on campus may protest or demonstrate there;
  • Any individual that materially or forcibly interferes with the free speech rights of others may be subject to disciplinary sanctions; and
  • Universities must strive to be neutral on public policy issues of the day so that individuals on campus—like students and faculty—can take positions on controversial issues and not fear reprisal from the school.

Jonathan Butcher (M.A. in economics, University of Arkansas) is a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation and a senior fellow at the Goldwater Institute. His work has appeared in EducationNext, the Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy, The Wall Street Journal, Education Week, National Review Online, and several other newspapers across the country.