Free Speech Antidote in California

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Multiple incidents have threatened free speech—and student safety—on California’s college campuses this year, so taxpayers and lawmakers should welcome the proposal from Assemblywoman Melissa A. Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) to protect students and the free expression of ideas.

Melendez introduced the Campus Free Speech Act, based on model legislation created by Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and researchers at the Goldwater Institute. The model legislation directs public university governing boards to abolish restrictive speech codes, open the entire campus to free speech rather than proscribing it outside of pre-approved zones, and prescribes sanctions for members of the university community that break the law and interfere with others’ ability to speak. Critical due process protections are included that afford students accused of violating these provisions the ability to defend themselves in campus hearings.

Melendez’s bill (a resolution to amend the state constitution) includes these critical features of Goldwater’s model, while also applying the provisions to private colleges in the state. Private religious colleges would be exempt from the act “if the application would not be consistent with the religious tenets of that organization,” a key inclusion that allows religious schools to maintain their mission and autonomy.

In her statement announcing the bill, Melendez said, “The first amendment is a cornerstone to this country’s founding document.  Our Constitution is clear, all persons, despite race, religion, or creed, have the right to freely voice their opinion without fear of retribution.”

In 2017, lawmakers in Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Virginia have also introduced bills based on Goldwater’s model legislation. Lawmakers in Louisiana’s House Education Committee passed legislation earlier this week that also contains provisions based on our model.

Amidst the wave of violent protests on campuses around the country and rescinded speaking invitations for high-profile individuals, students are speaking out to defend free speech. Last week, students from the likes of Clemson, Michigan State, and Princeton, gathered at the University of Chicago and drafted a statement in favor of free speech.

Part of the statement reads, “A central purpose of education is to teach students to challenge themselves and engage with opposing perspectives. Our ability to listen to, wrestle with and ultimately decide between contending viewpoints fosters mutual understanding as well as personal and societal growth.”

If only more students demonstrated they were ready for adulthood. It’s an unfortunate sign of the times that lawmakers must introduce legislation to convince university leadership to treat students like grown ups and enforce consequences on anyone on campus that doesn’t act like a civil adult. But the alternative—allowing violent protestors to threaten individual safety and censor free speech—is unacceptable.

 

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