Free Speech is Winning on College Campuses

The following op-ed was published this weekend in the Daily Caller.

Free speech can be a contentious term that divides different generations and political parties. What does it include? When and to whom does it apply? Can it legally be restricted on public property? Does it allow for so-called “hate speech?”

Answers to these questions often differ depending on who is asked. Even higher education policy makers often disagree as to what is constitutional when it comes to speech, leading to vastly different policies from one campus to the next.

But it’s not just speech policies. It’s dress codes. Drug enforcement. Privacy rights. Across these policy areas and more, there are objectively good and bad standards that can be applied in taxpayer-funded schools. Unfortunately, differing legal interpretations lead to unequal application of constitutional rights on college campuses. This is due to inherent human error and bias, along with the troublesome fact that not all colleges employ attorneys to review their policies before they are adopted and enforced.

In Utah, students at Dixie State University were told they couldn’t display posters that mocked former president George Bush and communist revolutionary Che Guevara. Anything that mocked or disparaged others was against school policy.  The students sued the school, won a $50,000 settlement and obligated the school to change its policy.

The Dixie State situation wasn’t an isolated incident. Nationwide, students at various universities have had their rights infringed. Kevin Shaw was told he couldn’t pass out copies of the U.S. Constitution at Peirce College in California. A former student at University of Virginia is suing the school for their unlawful sexual misconduct mandate. One student was suspended for her husband’s controversial Facebook posts. Numerous other universities restricted students’ free expression to small zones on campus.

Fortunately, these attacks on civil liberties have sparked a nationwide discussion on students’ rights on campus. Many states went ahead and banned college free speech zones while individual colleges have changed policies at the pressure of student groups. While this is positive progress, these measures don’t always go far enough to protect each person’s rights.

In pursuit of broader reform, a few states enacted comprehensive legislation addressing this issue. Utah passed a bill which requires state colleges to evaluate their policies to ensure students’ rights are upheld. If they discover any possible problems within their policies, they are required to change them to ensure constitutional compliance.

If university leadership fails to adequately protect civil liberties, students still have a viable option to seek remedy. They can submit complaints directly to the state board of regents which will remedy each complaint to create meaningful campus-wide change. Before, their only option would have been to sue through the courts, which deterred many because of the costly and time consuming legal battle.

Arizona, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Arizona have also taken on the fight by passing laws based on the Goldwater Institutes model legislation which ensures each student’s right to express themselves freely, and to legally protect themselves when accused of wrongdoing. It compels universities to allow invited speakers to come on campus without threats of shutdowns or high security fees, and affirms that universities ought to remain neutral on public controversy issues. The Board of Regents is tasked with oversight of each states program to ensure universities are abiding by law to uphold civil liberties.

Which state will be next? Hopefully more will soon follow. The number of legislators and policy advocates who have stepped forward to tackle this issue is encouraging, and could likely influence other states to follow suit.

Civil liberties are basic fundamental rights that serve an inherent function within a free society.  When state institutions begin encroaching upon these rights, individual freedom diminishes under the increasingly powerful government. This is why the fight for our rights remains a paramount contention, even and especially on taxpayer-funded campuses.

At a time when youth engagement in politics is on the rise, it is important to ensure that their ability to engage in controversial speech is protected. Nationwide, students should push for the enactment of a similar law. With several states already on board, there are plenty of us willing to help lead the way.