Play Nice or Else

By March 17, 2005

Everybody loves free speech until they’re the one offended. Then somebody had better pay. Or so it would seem at the University of North Texas, where the residue from a student protest six weeks ago finds a Hispanic organization searching for vindication, a conservative group refusing to apologize and a university chancellor failing to appease all sides.

"We have a long way to go in all this," says the aforementioned chancellor, Lee Jackson.

They do indeed–with nothing less than the First Amendment on the line.

But first, some background.

The Young Conservatives of Texas, a student organization that takes stances only a Rush Limbaugh-Dick Cheney spawn would love, staged a "Capture the Illegal Immigrant" protest in late January ("Heat, No Light," February 3). It drew heavy criticism. Particularly pissed was every Hispanic student on campus.

The protest got a ton of media play, only widening the scope of anger. Pretty soon, the League of United Latin American Citizens was involved. Two weeks later Chancellor Jackson issued a statement–some say he was forced to issue it–basically saying the university should have said something earlier but there isn’t a whole lot it can say now, anyway. "Although [YCT’s] methods were offensive to many," Jackson said, "there is no known basis in law or policy to censure or restrict those who exercised their right to speak on a current issue."

That really pissed off LULAC. The day after his statement, LULAC officials met and thought about asking for Jackson’s resignation. They didn’t, however, because Jackson had the foresight to attend LULAC’s next meeting, where he further calmed emotions.

But that’s not to say all is forgiven. Last week, UNT administrators and LULAC representatives formed a task force to look into the university’s commitment to diversity. Lots of broad, far-reaching goals were discussed: helping Hispanic students receive financial aid; developing a Chicano studies program; making sure Hispanic students at orientation feel welcomed; stuff like that.

The task force initiators didn’t reveal specific plans, save this one: Coty Rodriguez-Anderson, LULAC’s District III director, told the North Texas Daily, the campus newspaper, "We all agreed that free speech needs to be protected, but that there must be guidelines so ["Capture the Illegal Immigrant"] won’t happen again."

When asked to clarify her curious stance, Rodriguez-Anderson tells the Observer, "What do you mean? That’s pure English…More screening needs to be done about what is going on. We cannot offend people. I am all in favor of free speech, but it needs to be free speech with consideration of others."


That’s what Jim McCown’s asking. He’s a First Amendment attorney with the Dallas law firm Jackson Walker. (Full disclosure: McCown has represented the Dallas Observer.) He says you can’t say only nice things and have free speech, and that business about screening potential campus protests–"that’s censorship," he says. That’s illegal.

He’s not the only one who feels this way. Michele Connole is the publicity director for the Young Conservatives of Texas at UNT. For her, that business about offensive speech is the truly offensive part. "The First Amendment does not protect anyone from being offended," she says. Alarm among campus groups has run high in the days since the task force’s announcement. YCT put aside its ideological differences, Connole says, and will team with the College Democrats should the task force’s recommendations prove constitutionally sketchy.

Chancellor Jackson says they won’t. Whether it’s making Hispanic students feel at home or making sure free speech reigns, "We have an obligation to both of those core values," he says.

Really? Even to the First Amendment? The precedent on campus says otherwise.

Last fall, U.S. District Judge Sam Cummings of the Northern District of Texas ruled against Texas Tech University’s "free speech zone" policy. A free speech zone is an area on campus in which any registered group can protest anything it wants.

Anything, however, outside that area is restricted speech. Cummings found this unconstitutional. "To the extent the campus has park areas, sidewalks, streets or other similar common areas, these are public forums…irrespective of whether the university has so designated them or not," he wrote.

Despite this ruling, five months later all six of UNT’s free speech zones are active. When YCT staged its "Illegal Immigrant" protest in January, members handed out literature on the public sidewalk just outside the designated free speech zone. University officials ushered them back to their area.

"It’s bullshit," YCT President Chris Brown said at the time.

Maybe, but get used to it, says David French, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit specializing in First Amendment rights on campuses across the nation.

French’s group recently completed a study of 285 of the nation’s top universities. "Seventy percent of the schools have policies that restrict constitutionally protected speech," he says. "There are fewer free speech rights on a university campus than for any other citizen."

Every university, despite its claim as an open marketplace for ideas, tries to create "this tolerance utopia," French says, and all have failed. "You just can’t make everyone feel OK all the time," he says. The intolerant speech is not countered by more speech from all sides. Instead, speech itself is limited.

"This is really something we see quite a bit," French says. Someone says something or protests something that’s viewed as racist or sexist or homophobic or whatever. Outrage ensues. A task force is formed to look into the matter. The task force finds racists or sexists or homophobes on campus. Free speech is restricted.

I tell French that Chancellor Jackson says the task force won’t infringe upon any First Amendment rights.

French says where there’s a task force, there’s future impediments to free speech.

"Why does a school have to apologize for the free speech of its students?" he asks.

Schools: University of North Texas Texas Tech University