SAN MARCOS, Texas—A committee of the Texas Senate met today at Texas State University to consider reforms to protect and preserve free speech at Texas’ public universities.
After Texas Southern University officials removed State Rep. Briscoe Cain from a speaking engagement on campus last Fall, Cain wrote to Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to urge them to add campus free speech to their interim charges. While the request fell on deaf ears in the House, Patrick quickly called for the Senate State Affairs Committee to study the issue in depth.
Patrick’s charge set the stage for a broad conversation on the state of free speech on college campuses:
Ascertain any restrictions on Freedom of Speech right that Texans students face in expressing their views on campus along with freedom of the press, religion, and assembly. Recommend policy changes that protect First Amendment rights and enhance the free speech environment on campus.
Invited testimony included university administrators, free-speech activists, and representatives from both the Republican and Democrat state parties and their respective campus organizations, as well as testimony from First Assistant Attorney General Brantley Starr, representing Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Starr cited recent cases in the spotlight of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education as necessity for reform on the college level, recalling a story from 2016 in which a Michigan student was arrested for handing out copies of the US Constitution on campus.
State Sen. Joan Huffman (R–Houston) questioned Raphael X. Moffett, Vice President of Student Affairs at Texas Southern University, about the Cain incident, suggesting the university should desire elected officials speak at their campus and instead work to ensure the “heckler’s veto” doesn’t repeat itself.
In response, Moffett repeated the talking point used by the university following the event that the Federalist Society chapter was not recognized on the campus and administrative officials had no knowledge of the event, a point discredited by emails obtained by Texas Scorecard as well as by the Dean of TSU’s Law School.
The university administrators who testified largely deflected responsibility for campus speech limitations, describing their own processes and approval requirements as “time, place, and manner” restrictions that are not based on content.
In reality, colleges have intentionally implemented and utilized tedious processes and fees as a means by which to chill the speech of student groups they disagree with, recently charging the Young Conservatives of Texas group at UT-Austin for “security fees” related to Rick Santorum’s recent appearance at the university.
Representatives from the Anti-Defamation League, Texas Public Policy Foundation, and Empower Texans were invited to share the positions on free speech advocated by their respective organizations. While the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union and Center for Public Policy Priorities were invited to the hearing, both organizations declined to attend.
Thomas Lindsay, from Texas Public Policy Foundation, suggested universities adopt the legislative proposals set forward by the Goldwater Institute, which affirm students’ right to free speech and direct colleges to “strongly affirm the importance of free expression, nullifying any existing restrictive speech codes in the process.”
Tony McDonald, General Counsel for Empower Texans, suggested tackling the problem by removing free speech zones on campuses, not requiring faculty advisors for student groups, and not forcing students to pay security fees.
“Security fees should not be charged to a student organization simply because another group decides to protest their event,” said McDonald.
When State Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D–Laredo) asked how universities would cover the cost of the security, Manuel Escobar, a representative for the Anti-Defamation League, suggested that the legislature should earmark funds specifically for providing security for controversial events on college campuses.
Lawmakers appeared eager to adopt reforms that will improve the situations on college campuses and better secure the speech rights of Texans—a welcome sign for Texans considering that efforts to do so in the Texas Legislature fell short last year.
The committee is scheduled to continue its interim hearings next month, as it studies religious liberty and human trafficking. After holding hearings on its charges, the committee will propose legislation that may be taken up during the 2019 legislative session.