In January, Texas A&M University became the Lone Star State’s sole university to receive the highest possible rating for its protection of the First Amendment on campus. At the same time, it appears that the University of Texas System is considering taking its own principled stand for freedom through adopting the University of Chicago’s exemplary Statement on Free Expression.
Texas A&M’s “Green Light” rating on free speech comes from the nonpartisan watchdog organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE rates schools on the basis of three categories: A “red light” signifies that the school has official policies on its books that are unconstitutional on their face due to the fact that they “clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech.”
A “yellow light” rating denotes that a school has policies on its books that are vague and thus potentially prone to violate the First Amendment rights of students and/or faculty. A “green light” signifies that the school has no policies that violate the First Amendment.
Commenting on A&M’s ascendancy, Azhar Majeed, FIRE’s vice president of policy reform, commented, “We encourage colleges across the state to follow Texas A&M’s lead and put the First Amendment first.”
Michael Young, Texas A&M’s president, added that “a free exchange of ideas is not only a cornerstone of our democracy, it is the surest path to truth, discovery and scholarly advancement.”
A&M is one of only 45 institutions in America to earn FIRE’s highest rating. Moreover, at 70,000 total students, A&M has now become the largest university in the country to earn the highest rating on free speech.
Unfortunately, of the 19 universities in Texas that FIRE rated, five earn its “red light” rating, the worst a school can receive. The lowest-rated Texas schools include the University of Houston, the University of Texas-Dallas, the University of North Texas, Rice University and the University of Texas-Austin. (Rice is private, and thus, unlike public universities, is not legally required to uphold the First Amendment.)
Although two University of Texas System schools (UT-Austin and UT-Dallas) are included in FIRE’s list of the worst universities for free speech, this may be changing soon. The new UT System Chancellor, James Milliken, recently announced that restoring the First Amendment on the UT System’s 14 campuses “is enormously important to me and to my colleagues — that the University of Texas System have a strong statement, a strong set of policies ensuring free expression.”
Milliken added that the University of Chicago Statement “really sets forth in a pretty concise and coherent way what the obligations of a public institution are under the First Amendment.”
Just what are the obligations of a public university under the First Amendment? On this question, the U.S. Supreme Court has been unambiguous in its rulings for over the past half-century. The high Court has ruled that “State colleges and universities are not enclaves immune from the sweep of the First Amendment. . . . [T]he precedents of this Court leave no room for the view that . . . First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large” (Healy v. James 1972).
As far back as 1943, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote about the role of schools in our society: “That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.”
In addition, and as I described on this site, we better appreciate the indispensability of the First Amendment when we reflect on the role it played in advancing the cause of black civil rights in the 1950s and ‘60s.
In 1960, nine African-American students at Alabama State College participated in a sit-in at a segregated cafe in the Montgomery County Courthouse. The restaurant refused to serve them, and ordered them to leave. As reported, “When Alabama State College learned of the students’ actions, it summarily expelled them without notice or hearing. The case was Dixon v. Alabama State Board of Education (1961). When the students appealed, a federal court ruled in their favor, holding that state universities have to obey constitutional restrictions. This was the first time due process rights of students were recognized judicially.”
Two years later, in Edwards v. South Carolina (1963), the Supreme Court struck down the breach-of-the-peace convictions of 187 African-American students who had marched to the South Carolina statehouse to protest segregation. The Court ruled that the arrests violated the students’ First Amendment rights to freedom of assembly and petition. Edwards also stressed that government could not criminalize the “peaceful expression of unpopular views.”
The University of Chicago Statement appears keenly aware of and grateful for the place and power of the First Amendment. The animating premise found in the Chicago Statement is this: “Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.”
At present, 56 universities have signed on to the Chicago Statement; among the signatory schools are Princeton, Columbia, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, and Purdue. These schools agree with the Chicago Statement’s assertion that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”
Texas A&M’s accomplishment, as well as the UT System’s aspirations, are tonic for the soul of our constitutional republic. The American experiment in self-government rests not on allegiance to “blood and soil,” but rather, to our defining principles of individual liberty and human equality.
*Editor’s Note: As of Nov. 1, 2020, the Univerity of North Texas was ranked yellow by FIRE.