Texas A&M Hosts Free Speech Workshops for Students ‘in Accordance with the Teachings of FIRE’

By January 27, 2009

Yesterday the Office of the President at Texas A&M University (TAMU) hosted two workshops on free speech titled "Free Speech: Balancing Freedoms with Our Aggie Values" in order to educate students about their free speech rights. The workshops were led by Saundra Schuster, author of The First Amendment on Campus: A Handbook for College and University Administrators. Over five hundred students attended the workshops.

An article last Friday in The Battalion quotes Director of Student Life and Vice-President for Student Services Carol Binzer describing the purpose of the workshop: "I want them to know what their freedoms are." Binzer was responsible for organizing the event and described it as "the first free speech workshop of this magnitude in my experience, and I’ve been here since 2002. It’s certainly the first time the president has sponsored one." TAMU’s current president, Dr. Elsa Murano, is from Cuba, and during the first workshop she shared her own view on the importance of free speech.

Advocates for free speech on campus should be encouraged by this development for three reasons: (1) a top administrator at a major university explicitly stated that the school is sponsoring a workshop to educate students about their free speech rights; (2) 500 copies of FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus were requested for distribution to students (a request we gladly fulfilled); and (3) students were required to take a quiz testing their knowledge of the First Amendment from the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) website prior to attending the workshop. These bode well for free speech at TAMU.

Initially FIRE had some concerns. According to the Battalion article last Friday, Binzer said, "The idea is to balance our freedom with respecting each other’s values and beliefs. Aggies should be able to make each other better by allowing each other to get out of our comfort zones. The University is a marketplace of ideas, and there is never just one brand." She appeared to take away with her left hand what she gave with her right. The First Amendment makes no requirement of respect. If students really must balance their free speech rights against "Aggie values," including "respect," then their First Amendment rights are substantially curtailed.

Fortunately, however, as The Battalion reports:

The workshop was held in accordance with the teachings of FIRE. The event placed emphasis on the idea that even though campus administrators and scholarly individuals within the college community claim to place emphasis on the freedom of speech, many of the nation’s academic institutions are encouraging quite the opposite.

In the organization’s [Guide to Free Speech] passed out at the beginning of the workshop, authors David French, Greg Lukianoff and Harvey Silverglate contend, "At most of America’s colleges and universities, speech is far from free, and fashionable ideas are not tested, but instead, are forced down the throats of often unsuspecting students."

It is terrific that Schuster’s understanding of the First Amendment comports so closely with ours. According to The Battalion, Schuster made clear that "Your administration cannot prohibit speech that is offensive, hateful, vulgar or rude."

The next step for TAMU perhaps should be the revision of its unconstitutional Student Rights and Obligations policy, which states in relevant part:

The rights of students are to be respected. These rights include respect for personal feelings, freedom from indignity of any type…. No officer or student, regardless of position or rank, shall violate those rights; no custom, tradition or rule in conflict will be allowed to prevail. (Emphasis added.)

This policy was chosen as FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month for May 2007. It is still in place despite the fact that TAMU’s policies were reviewed in 2008, after FIRE named the policy our Speech Code of the Month. The next review is not slated until next year, but every day with this policy on the books is a day when students’ rights are curtailed.

When we named this policy our Speech Code of the Month, we wrote:

This policy literally prohibits hurting someone’s feelings at Texas A&M University.

Legally speaking, this policy is not worth the paper it’s written on. It is unconstitutionally overbroad, because it prohibits a tremendous amount of constitutionally protected speech. (Most deeply hurtful speech is also entirely constitutionally protected. For an example, take a look at the case of Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Hustler Magazine’s right to publish a satirical advertisement suggesting that the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s first sexual experience was a drunken tryst in an outhouse with his own mother!) The policy is also unconstitutionally vague, because ordinary people will have to guess at its meaning. For example, might a classroom criticism of Creationism hurt the "personal feelings" of an evangelical Christian student? Might a classroom criticism of affirmative action hurt the "personal feelings" of a minority student? These are examples of both constitutionally protected and socially important speech, but students at Texas A&M must guess at whether they might face punishment for expressing those opinions, and are thus likely to refrain from speaking out for fear of engendering hurt feelings. Finally, this policy unconstitutionally conditions the permissibility of speech on subjective listener reaction—i.e., on whether the speech hurts someone’s feelings, whether or not the person’s hurt feelings are reasonable. The only prerequisite for punishment seems to be whether or not someone felt hurt by someone else’s speech. Time and time again, courts have held that these types of regulations are unconstitutional.

Legal considerations aside, moreover, think of the effect that a policy like this has on campus discourse. Can you imagine the eggshells students must walk on to avoid violating this policy? Think how circumspect you would be in your daily interactions if you could be punished simply for hurting someone’s feelings. Is that an appropriate environment for a major state university that, in its own words, "depends upon an uninhibited search for truth and its open expression"?

We are happy that TAMU is taking its students’ rights seriously. We see positive signs of change and heartily offer our support as the university continues in the right direction.

Schools: Texas A&M University – College Station