Monday, March 07, 2005

Higher ed committee debates free speech on campus

In 2003, free speech legislation aimed at Texas university campuses was scheduled for a vote by the Texas House of Representatives on the day that Democrats fled to Ardmore, OK as part of the redistricting fight.

The same bill, this time titled HB 487, is up in the House Higher Education committee
at 2 p.m. today, and given recent events, its passage is more important than ever. Indeed, it may not be strong enough.

If you live in Austin, you've probably heard about the mess involving a rumor wildfire that the Young Conservatives of Texas planned to do an "immigrant hunt" in Austin the way the group did at the University of North Texas (UNT). The stunt is designed to oppose President Bush's ideas for expanding the guest worker program.

I oppose YCT's agenda on this topic and find the imagery in their UNT skit abhorrent, as well as juvenile and kinda stupid. MUCH more alarming though, is the idea that a mob of people who agree with me about that would take it upon themselves to chase the YCTers out of UT-Austin's free speech area. Some even picked up food from YCT's West Mall table and hurled it at their political opponents. The Daily Texan headline read, "Protest ends YCT West Mall event." That's a full-blown disgrace for the anti-YCT crowd, IMO.

Such petty thuggery has no place in American politics, whatever your views. It goes against everything this country stands for -- most especially the Jeffersonian principle, so critical to free public discourse, that error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.

Let me be clear: It is never, never, a smart strategy to assemble a mob of people in order to shout somebody else down. Nothing good can come of it. We don't win unless we defeat the ARGUMENTS, not the speakers.

Equally troubling was the university's reaction, according to the Statesman:
University students have the right to be able to express their opinions on campus, but "the prospect (of an illegal immigrant hunt) creates a hostile environment," said Teresa Brett, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, who watched Wednesday's demonstration. "It makes our campus less inclusive for students of color here."
What the hell? A mob chases a student group off the West Mall, and all UT administrators have to say is that the group they assaulted was creating a hostile environment? Throwing baked goods wasn't "hostile"? Isn't that justifying, instead of condemning, the protesters' behavior? Why didn't UTPD step in to protect the YCTers free speech rights, I keep wondering?

Which brings us back to HB 487 and free speech on university campuses. The legislation first originated when the UT-Austin administration denied permission for a pro-life organization working with a student group to erect a large, travelling photo display on the West Mall. They were first turned down, then allowed to put the display elsewhere, but had to remove messages from the national organization. Students had to black out portions of pamphlets and cover portions of their signs with cardboard.

Most often, restrictions on student free speech come directly from the university. In El Paso, UTEP denied a student Chicano cultural organization access to university facilities because an audience became too large for their small free speech zone. UTEP also denied 24 requests for permits from a student who whished to host a forum on student issues, including one called "Censorship on Texas Campuses." The University of Houston prevented a leader of a pro-life student group from carrying a sign that read, "Life is Beautiful: Choose Life" in Butler Plaza, a center of student activity.

HB 487 was designed to affect these types of situations where the university restricts free speech. It reads, in full: "Regulation by the governing board of an institution of higher education of the time, place and manner of speech and assembly may not be more restrictive than necessary to protect normal academic and institutional activities."

Would that language have had any effect in the YCT case? Perhaps not. The bill says a university must permit free speech that doesn't disrupt normal academic and institutional activities. But maybe they could play a further role: actively protecting individual liberty. Perhaps the law should tell universities, since they obviously don't independently get it, that it's their responsibility to protect students' free speech rights, even when what students have to say is unpopular. A clause could be added to the end of the bill text reading, "or to limit infringements on speech by any person on university property." That would tell universities they must ensure that intimidation tactics never prevail.

Free speech on university campuses deserves protecting, even from people with whom I agree.

UPDATE: Check out UT Watch's page in support of the bill.


Chris said...

I was there Wednesday morning, and the UTPD was there as well. They standing by the YCT tables and keeping protestors from crossing over. Also, there were plenty of people, including myself, protesting peacefully. From my point-of-view there, the YCT was inciting the crowd by refusing to speak. When protestors asked questions, they stood there silently. Lauren Conner showed up later and disingenously claimed that UT-YCT had never planned an immigrant hunt but later admitted to The Statesman that they, indeed, had one planned but cancelled it. The rumors about an immigrant hunt were true. YCT just failed to communicate the cancellation.

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Chris said...

Blogger sure has been slow the past few days. I deleted a duplicate comment I posted after I got a timeout error the first time I tried to post.

Cairo said...

The legal definition of "inciting" includes many things (e.g., words urging violence, screaming, yelling, spitting, etc...), but 'silence' isn't one of them. You simply cannot incite someone with silence. I admit, silence is often very frustrating to those who wish to dialogue about a particular issue, which is one reason why groups find it to be such an effective means for communicating dissent, but YCT did not incite the protestors by remaining silent. Since you were present at the protest, I wonder if you could describe it in more detail... I've read conflicting accounts in various news media. Specifically, did some protestors (not peaceful protestors like yourself of course) throw food at YCT members? I find that very hard to believe, but if true I'd have to say that those individuals crossed the line and should be admonished. If protestors threw food and and yelled while YCT members remained silent, I'd have to conclude that the protestors themselves were "inciting the crowd." I'm just glad there was no physical violence reported. I look forward to reading your description, and thanks for the post.

Travis Fell said...

"...YCT was inciting the crowd by refusing to speak." Hmmmm, they must have been using an old Jedi mind trick..."You're just the immigrants we're looking for" (ala Obi Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars)

But seriously, Grits, thanks for taking up for free speech on campus. I hope and pray people all across the political spectrum get behind this movement and HB 487 in particular.

I can hardly believe this bill is even necessary. But then I hear UT's lame excuse for non-action, it becomes more clear.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Chris, I have to agree with Matthew on the incitement question. I also don't think it matters whether YCT really planned the event or not. If they did, it should have been allowed to go forward. The result, as at UNT, would only have discredited them. (If it makes you feel any better, the YCT'er who testified for HB 487 got flamed by the Higher Ed committee members, including the Republicans, because he tried to defend the immigrant hunt thing.)

Matthew, the food throwing was discussed in the Texan, and by at least one eyewitness blogger I read, though I don't remember where now. I'm pretty sure it really happened that way. Nobody seems to be disputing it.

Thanks, Tommy, for the kind words and the plug on your blawg.

Finally, Bruce, I stand by my statement that it's never productive to attempt to impose what the courts have called a "heckler's veto." IMO, even if it "succeeds," the damage to the moral legitimacy of one's own position isn't worth the price. That's certainly just one man's judgment, and I understand why others may disagree, but I feel very strongly about it.

I appreciate everybody stopping by.