Latest Campus Free Speech Battle Shows Long Way to Go to Protect Student First Amendment Freedoms

The free speech battles on college campuses today are perhaps unparalleled since the time of Mario Savio at Berkeley in the 1960s – although the cast of characters is much different today with conservatives being afraid to speak freely about their beliefs in class.

Recently on “Next Round with PRI,” we chatted with NAME, Reason editor and author of the new book Panic Attack about why Zillennials – his term blending Millennials and Generation Z – are rejecting the values of free speech and openness that were once the guiding principles of campus liberals.

He told us, “they have kind of turned on free speech and due process, which used to be important values of the left . . . the left now holds these values as antithetical to their activism.”

Continue, he says that, “they do not practice free speech for everyone.  Free speech is capable of harming people if you allow people to say things that threaten the safety by impacting the mental or emotional health of people the left is sympathetic to, then it’s like you’ve engaged in violence.”

California has been an epicenter of the latest clash on campus over free speech.  Our Steve Hayward has had a front row seat to some of these battles in his current position as a professor at UC Berkeley.  He shared his observations on Next Round watching the infamous clashes at Cal over guest speakers Milo Yiannopoulos and Ben Shapiro.

The latest battle in the fight over free speech is happening at the University of Texas, Austin, which has enacted several strict restrictions on speech that clearly infringe on the First Amendment rights of students.

Our friends at the Pacific Legal Foundation have filed an amicus brief in a lawsuit challenging these policies brought by the group Speech First.

According to the Austin American-Statesman, the case “was filed on behalf of three unnamed UT students, who said they did not feel comfortable expressing their opinions on such controversial issues as abortion, gun rights and immigration because of the university’s vague policies on verbal harassment . . . (leading) the students to worry the school would retaliate against them if they spoke up.”

Commenting on the case, PLF attorney Tim Snowball recently wrote, “the anti-speech policies at UT Austin show how administrators trying to protect students from uncomfortable speech can violate constitutional rights in multiple ways.”

A federal court tossed out the case in June, but Students First backed by PLF recently appealed the decision to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Being able to freely express one’s views on campus is not something any student should have to sue in court over in the first place.  Fortunately, groups like PLF, the Goldwater Institute, and others are also working with state legislatures to try and protect student free speech rights through state legislation.

As PLF’s Jim Manley – who crafted model free speech legislation while at the Goldwater Institute – told PRI on “Next Round” last year, “the legislation is designed to reflect the Legislature’s role in protecting state and federal constitutional rights . . . It creates an official university policy that affirms the importance of free expression and it nullifies existing speech codes that impose overly broad definitions of harassment or put feelings above the free exchange of ideas.”

The model legislation has already been enacted in some states including Arizona and North Carolina, but not surprisingly has not been enacted in California.

It’s a shame that students in the state that gave birth to the free speech movement more than 60 years ago would still think twice before saying what they think on campus and would have to seek legislation or even a lawsuit to preserve their First Amendment freedoms.

Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s communications director.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

Scroll to Top