The controversy over free speech on college campuses should be a teachable moment for institutions of higher learning, an opportunity to emphasize the value of the civil exchange of ideas.
One of the First Amendment’s highest aims is the protection of speech that offends or irritates. Of course, there are some limits, including not inciting a riot or the proverbial matter of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. That noted, the answer to offensive speech is more speech, not muzzling the speaker.
Those ideals have been tested in recent years.
Well-known provocateurs who thrive on shock value have made their way onto college campuses. In one instance in 2017, an appearance by extremist commentator Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley set off rioting. Closer to home, a speech in Auburn by white supremacist Richard Spencer spurred fighting and arrests on campus.
In a perfect world, speakers would have their say and then the audience would be allowed to challenge their remarks. This give and take — free of shouting and histrionics — serve the purpose of promoting good ideas and burying bad ones. A healthy democracy thrives on these types of honest exchanges.
In 1943, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote that because schools “are educating the young for citizenship,” our country must employ “scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.”
Instead, we too often see overreactions from polarized sides of the national debate of free speech on campus. HB 94, a bill under consideration by the Alabama Legislature during its 2018 session, is just such an example.
HB 94 “would prohibit a person, by means of any independently unlawful act, from preventing or attempting to prevent another person from making a public speech on public property because of the content of the speech,” according to the text of the bill sponsored by Rep. Jack Williams, R-Birmingham.
Breaking this law would result in a felony on the part of protesters.
“Felony charges in that situation would be very chilling to the First Amendment,” Randall Marshall, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, told The Star last week.
“There have been numerous events around the country where people have trampled on speakers’ rights because they didn’t agree with the content of the speech,” Rep. Williams said in explaining why he’s promoting the bill.
We will credit Williams for recognizing that a deliverer of unpopular speech shouldn’t be shut down by a mob. Yet, his proposed legislative fix is several steps in the wrong direction. Alabama already has misdemeanor laws on the books against disorderly conduct. Making another class of felon isn’t the solution.
In fact, there’s very little more laws can do to promote respect for free speech rights. That’s a job best left to citizens with a deep appreciation of the First Amendment.