Free speech at Louisiana universities? It’s never too late to start: James Varney

December 30, 2012

Here’s a New Year’s wish for 2013: this year, on the 222nd anniversary of the Bill of Rights’ ratification, Louisiana colleges and universities will honor the freedom of speech. Thus far, unfortunately, defending the First Amendment is not a resolution many Louisiana schools of higher learning have kept.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education grades schools nationwide in terms of their commitment to free speech, a thing that, in theory anyway, would need no protection in a genuine marketplace of ideas. In Louisiana, not one of 7 public and 1 private colleges and universities analyzed got a green light on free speech.

Indeed, only one, Northwestern State University, could even earn a yellow light when it comes to protecting the vocal rights of students and faculty. Every other school, including LSU and Tulane, got a red light for their (well intentioned, of course) speech and civility codes.

So here, depressingly, is yet another list in which Louisiana ranks near the bottom. In 2013, thirteen states had more than 75 percent of their institutes of alleged higher learning flagged with a red light. Of that group, only Wisconsin and Illinois had 100 percent of their schools snubbing a civil liberty you’d think they would cherish. After that, Louisiana and Texas are the worst offenders, according to FIRE.

The state is even sorrier when compared to trends near and far. Although more than 60 percent of the 409 colleges and universities in the 2013 report got a red light for infringing free speech, that figure has dropped for five consecutive years. And in that longstanding rivalry between Louisiana and Mississippi for which is the most backward state in the union? Well, Ole Miss and Mississippi State both moved from red to green in 2012 after the schools stripped free speech restrictions from their written policies.

That honorable transition held at Ole Miss even after the school was embarrassedby racially tinged campus demonstrations following President Obama’s re-election last November. Better minds in Oxford realized the best way to combat knuckleheads is with more speech, not less.

These speech codes are infuriating on two levels. On the one hand, First Amendment restrictions are anathema to a place devoted to nurturing, discovering and exploring ideas. Certainly there can be no robust discussion when students and faculties are either worried of veering off some approved, often fluid line, or crossing a line none of them realized had been drawn.

It is a creepy environment indeed when administrators and, too often, some student leaders decide what ideas are verboten on campus. Nevertheless, such intellectual chicanery has been going on for decades. Surveying what he called, "the pall of orthodoxy on the nation’s campuses," back in 1992, Nat Hentoff captured the Orwellian outcome of barring speakers on campus when he wrote that, "seen in an egalitarian light…prohibiting people from hearing what they came to hear [is] actually an elitist authoritarianism."

It is light, of course, that truly disinfects a campus. The mindset that approved of literature David Duke once handed out in LSU’s "Free Speech Alley" thrives underground. Bigotry quails out in the sun, where it faces attack from superior and voiced arguments.

Secondly, those within the Ivory Tower know well, or should, that they have no legal leg to stand on. Sooner or later, judges of all stripes strike down these codes: the First Amendment, thankfully, is virtually undefeated in court.

LSU, it would seem, may soon discover that again, as its "Free Speech Alley" – comprising 1,000 square feet on a 650-acre campus – faces a lawsuit brought by a pro-life plaintiff last month. The University of Cincinnati recently lost a similar case involving that school’s attempt to restrict the time and place where the U.S. Constitution held sway.

Among Louisiana’s scofflaw schools, SLU is perhaps the worst offender. There, those wishing to express an opinion publicly must be cleared by the thought police 7 days in advance, and even then may have only one 2-hour period every 7 days to speak.

Absurd, yes. Outrageous, too, coming as it does from the very places out of which the next generation of Louisiana’s social, economic and political leaders will likely emerge. Those operating, willingly or otherwise, within a cocoon will have a much harder time succeeding in the brighter world where ideas good and bad will be on the final exam. 

The real impetus for this – why on earth is it required? – change must come from the students, though. There is no reason they should allow themselves to be shortchanged intellectually, particularly given the higher and higher prices these insulated thought bubble palaces charge.

"We would love to see some improvement in Louisiana," FIRE attorney Samantha Harris said. "Even though we come down hard on these universities that maintain unconstitutional policies, we’re also very eager to work constructively with administrations to improve the speech policies. We’d love to hear from administrators in Louisiana, we’d love to get the ball rolling on improvements."