Balancing the First Amendment and Students’ Safety

Senate panel discusses free speech on college campuses

UNITED STATES — Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., took part in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the issue of free speech on college campuses. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

When Zachary Wood arrived at Williams College his freshman year, he had high hopes for an academic environment that challenged his views. Now going into his senior year, Wood says he has faced backlash from students and administrators for inviting controversial speakers to campus.

Wood appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, part of a panel discussing free speech on college campuses.

Wood describes himself as a liberal Democrat, but he brought provocative speakers representing diverse political ideologies to campus. He wanted to expose students to ideas they disagree with.

One such speaker invitation prompted the Williams College administration to cancel the event and revise the campus speaker policies.

Wood said this was “impermissible, undemocratic, and antithetical to the intellectual character of the college”

Williams College is not alone in disinviting speakers. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has tracked attempts to disinvite college speakers since 2000. It documented an upward trend. In 2016, FIRE recorded 43 incidents in which students or administrators attempted to cancel a planned speech.

Senator Ted Cruz lambasted college administrators for acting as “speech police.” 

“If universities become homogenizing institutions that are focused on inculcating and indoctrinating rather than challenging, we will lose what makes universities great,” Cruz said.

The issue of disinviting speakers gained national attention in February when violent protests broke out at the University of California, Berkeley in response to a scheduled talk by alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

More recently, Berkeley cancelled a talk by commentator Ann Coulter amid more threats of protest.

Ranking Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein pointed to these violent demonstrations as justification for college administrators cancelling speeches. The senator from California said university police forces often do not have the training and resources needed to handle these situations.

Feinstein argued that Berkeley has a “right to protect its students from demonstrations once they become acts of violence.”

While there was consensus among panel members on the importance of free speech on campus, the issue came to the application of that right in practice. 

UCLA Law professor Eugene Volokh said it was important to punish violent protesters to ensure that they don’t continue to disrupt speeches. He said this will sometimes require bringing in more law enforcement.

“If you violate the law and by this I mean laws against vandalism, laws against violence, laws against physically shouting people down, then in that case you will be punished rather than having your goals be achieved,” Volokh said.

Feinstein pushed back on the suggestion of more law enforcement to control college protests. She asked whether any lessons were learned from the 1970 Kent State shooting, in which Ohio National Guardsmen shot and killed four students and injured nine others. 

Frederick Lawrence, secretary and CEO of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, said colleges must start with a “strong presumption in favor of the speech” but make judgements based on the circumstances. As a former president of Brandeis University, Lawrence said it is greatly exaggerated to expect colleges to have the resources to deal with all types of violent protests.

Lawrence said that no matter the speaker’s beliefs, colleges should find ways to host the event. He suggested making speeches private events if needed, closed to people outside the university community.

Over the past few months, several states have taken up the issue of free speech on campus. A bill passed the North Carolina House in April that would ensure public universities be open to all speakers. It also would require sanctions on protesters who disrupt events.

Panelist Floyd Abrams, a prominent First Amendment lawyer, said he was “apprehensive about state legislatures getting too close to the university campuses.” Abrams said state legislatures should not dictate what colleges can teach or cannot teach.

On the federal level, a bipartisan resolution calling for the protection of free speech was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in May. If passed, the resolution would condemn university free speech zones and restrictive speech codes. The Senate does not have any similar legislation.

Calling himself a “small government guy,” Sen. Ben Sasse said he “wants to see as little of this adjudicated by coercion and power and possible.” The Nebraska senator and former college president called on college administrators to defend free speech on their campuses.

Following the hearing Sen. John Kennedy agreed with Sasse, making clear to reporters that federal intervention was not needed to solve the problem.

“I don’t want the government to have to come in and say this is acceptable and this isn’t,” Kennedy said. “I want a university president to do his job and to have the guts to do it. And if he can’t do it he ought to quit.”

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