Opinion: Free speech jeopardized on college campuses

Jonathan Butcher
Michigan lawmakers just referred a proposal to that state’s House Committee on Judiciary that allows for peaceful protest and the distribution of literature on public college campuses, Butcher writes.

According to popular legend, Georgetown University’s class of 1964 brought a bulldog to campus that would become the school’s mascot. The class wanted to name him “Hoya,” but the dog refused to listen. He wouldn’t respond to anything but “Jack.”

Unfortunately, some law students at Georgetown recently proved as incorrigible as Jack. But they didn’t just tune out what they didn’t want to hear. They joined other protesters and shouted down acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan. These critics of the Trump administration’s immigration policies disrupted the acting secretary’s remarks even after other attendees “pleaded with them [the protesters] to let the event proceed,” according to the Washington Post.

Despite the interruptions, McAleenan said, “As a career law enforcement professional, I’ve dedicated my career to protecting the right to free speech and all the values we hold dear in America, from all threats.” But the shouts and disturbances forced him off the stage. 

Some groups remain apologists for inappropriate student behavior such as this. In a willful misrepresentation of the right to free expression, some claim that “provocative speakers” stir up “massive student protests,” as if the students have no other option but to violate someone else’s free-speech rights when they hear things with which they disagree. These excuses infantilize young adults, denying other people the ability to listen and be heard, and stifle the intellectual and emotional growth of college students.

Fortunately, many observers understood that the Georgetown disruption was unacceptable to the speakers and audience members alike. Andrew Selee of the Migration Policy Institute, the group hosting Georgetown’s event, tweeted, “Deeply saddened that protestors decided to interrupt @DHSMcAleenan during his speech at a conf organized by @MigrationPolicy @cliniclegal @GeorgetownLaw. We need to hear from diverse perspectives in a democratic society, and the audience lost the chance to engage w/him on policy.”

Erica Goldberg, a visiting scholar for Georgetown Law School’s Center for the Constitution, tweeted, “Respecting the rights of protestors does not mean allowing them to hijack events that consist entirely of the exchange of ideas and are thus clearly part of academic freedom and free speech values. Universities should honor their primary goal of education, not social justice.”

Fortunately, state lawmakers around the country are demonstrating that they understand the importance of free expression. Policymakers in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Wisconsin have enacted proposals in recent years that protect everyone’s right to be heard on public college campuses. The proposals follow in the footsteps of U.S. Supreme Court decisions and position statements from the University of Chicago and Yale that say protecting students from ideas is not part of a university’s mission.

And the work continues. Michigan lawmakers just referred a proposal to that state’s House Committee on Judiciary that allows for peaceful protest and the distribution of literature on public college campuses. The proposal requires schools to adopt “a policy on free expression,” similar to the University of Chicago statement on free speech that more than 60 schools across the country have adopted. 

Similar to the Goldwater Institute’s analysis of campus speech protections, the proposal says faculty and students are allowed to take public positions on controversial topics, even if those opinions run contrary to positions the school has adopted and that schools must have freshman orientation programs discussing free speech. 

Michigan lawmakers have considered similar proposals for public colleges in recent years, and the current iteration is missing valuable provisions that allow campus officials to sanction students that violate others’ expressive rights, up to and including suspension and expulsion. Typically, colleges can already issue such consequences for behavior that is non-violent and does not physically threaten others, such as plagiarism and cheating — so holding students accountable for their protests when these actions violate free speech rights or threaten the safety of others acknowledges the college’s responsibility to keep everyone safe on campus. 

Bulldogs are stubborn by nature, so we would be expecting too much if we wanted Jack to consider new ideas. However, we should hold Georgetown students — and students in Michigan and around the country — to a higher standard.

Jonathan Butcher is a senior policy analyst in the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org) and a senior fellow at the Goldwater Institute.