Lone Star College – North Harris: The Last Word on State and Federal Law?

By November 12, 2012

When it comes to the free speech tangles colleges get themselves into, it’s not often that I say "Here’s a new one." But those are about the only words I’m left with after reading about a recent incident at Lone Star College – North Harris (TX), where an official from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was prevented from delivering a lecture on workplace rights. The speaker, EEOC outreach manager Joe Bontke, had been invited to speak by the campus chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

The Houston Chronicle reports:

Companies, industry groups, trade associations, conferences, chambers of commerce and breakfast and lunch groups often ask Joe Bontke to talk about the latest trends, including legislation on disabilities and equal pay. Social media issues involving Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are especially popular topics.

But Bontke did not give one of his popular presentations at Lone Star College–North Harris on Friday afternoon. He was invited by the teachers’ union, a room was reserved and notices of his presentation were distributed. It was to be open to students, faculty and staff alike.

Then university administrators withdrew the welcome mat. A cancellation sign on the classroom greeted Bontke when he arrived on campus on Friday.

Lone Star’s reasoning for the cancellation? 

Jed Young, executive director of communications for the Lone Star College System, said the school’s policy is that only the general counsel’s office can make presentations about subjects that involve state and federal laws. Any requests for a seminar must also come from a campus president, he said.

The Chronicle also reports:

Spokesman Young said he doesn’t know if Lone Star’s policy forbids faculty members from addressing civil rights and other laws as part of course curriculums. [...]

Young said he doesn’t know if the prohibition on law-related seminars is new and could not provide a written copy of the policy.

Is this a standing policy, or is it not? I’m not sure which outcome I prefer. If the policy is unwritten (as it well may be, according to the article), then Lone Star is flying by the seat of its pants into unconstitutional territory. The sheer amount of protected speech that this vague, broad policy prohibits is staggering. Not only could faculty-led class discussions dealing with matters of law be threatened, but any student group (or, as was the case here, faculty group) hosting any speaker or organization whose speech falls into that broad orbit could be as well. Would a group be forbidden from hosting a speaker from, say, the ACLU of Texas? For that matter, would a representative from FIRE be allowed to come to campus and talk about the First Amendment? 

FIRE is investigating this case and hopes to have more to report from Lone Star College–North Harris soon.