Friends of the First Amendment were elated this fall to read University of Texas President Jay Hartzell’s clarion call for free speech on college campuses. The title of his op-ed in the Dallas Morning News got to the heart of the matter: “There is no higher education without free speech.” Nor is there democracy without free speech. These are noble sentiments that all lovers of freedom can heartily endorse.
Eleven days after publishing the op-ed, however, Hartzell and UT found themselves in the legal crosshairs. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Speech First, a national group that sues schools over suspected censorship, had standing to pursue its legal challenge over UT’s speech-stifling policies.
The appellate court took the gloves off in its opinion, labeling UT’s “Campus Climate Response Team,” which investigates anonymous claims of verbal harassment, the “clenched fist in the velvet glove of student speech regulation.” The lawsuit asserts that UT’s vague policies, which include prohibiting attacks on a person’s race or religion, have deterred students from speaking out on topics like immigration, identity politics and abortion out of fear they will be reported.
It will be some time before the issue is ultimately resolved, as the case could end up in the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, Hartzell could do more to give flesh to the inspiring words in his op-ed.
For starters, he could follow the lead of UT’s Student Government, which last year supported a resolution to adopt the “Chicago Statement,” the University of Chicago’s 2015 official defense of campus free speech. The Chicago Statement stresses that “the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”
In his op-ed, Hartzell eloquently articulates those values. “Allowing free speech does not endorse the truth, value or morality of what is expressed,” Hartzell wrote. “It does, however, stand on the premise that the only way to figure out what is true, valuable and morally right is through thought and discussion.”
In short, all of us need free speech, without which both democracy and education lose the capacity to improve themselves. In this era of campus shout-downs, “trigger warnings” and speaker disinvitations, Hartzell should be commended for taking the strong stand in his op-ed and showing a receptivity to his students.
The UT administration has yet to act on the student government’s vote, but Hartzell should consider joining dozens of other signatory universities — including Princeton, Columbia, Purdue and Georgetown — in embracing the Chicago Statement.
On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King gave his last speech before he was assassinated. In the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, he objected to a court injunction seeking to block his planned rally April 8, and said this about the First Amendment:
“All we say to America is to be true to what you said on paper … [S]omewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
Here’s hoping that UT’s next step is to take the leadership role in making Texas public higher education a model of freedom for the rest of the country. To accomplish this, as Hartzell counsels, “freedom of speech is the path, not the problem.” Freedom’s friends are eager to march with Hartzell on the path to restoration.
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