About two years ago, another iteration of this board made a vigorous defense of free speech on campus. This specifically addressed the demands for the prohibition of speech sympathizing with the Confederacy in the wake of a rally on Oct. 25, 2015. This iteration of the board, for the most part, still adheres to this position. Unsurprisingly, an editorial board of a campus newspaper thanks our nation implicitly every day for the right to say what we say without fear of prohibition. We, as a paper and as a community, owe it to ourselves to continue vigilance in defense of this constitutional right even if it guarantees confrontation with speech we find beyond the pale, provided that speech does not specifically incite physical violence.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently stated that the Department of Justice will be committed to the defense of free speech on campus. He specifically stated that their objects of interest include policies that:
- Ban any act that creates an “offensive educational, work or living environment,” citing the arbitrary nature of that criteria.
- Limits free speech to “Free Speech Zones,” particularly in small or remote areas of campus.
- Permit the “Heckler’s Veto,” meaning that administrators may cancel a speech even if there is a chance it is met with protest.
While we disagree with other policies Sessions has outlined since his installment, we tentatively welcome this one. Too many institutions of higher education have taken cowardly positions regarding our First Amendment rights. As we have stated many times in these pages, hard principled stances among university administrators occur far too seldomly, particularly if there is any kind of financial disincentive. We do understand some of the challenges administrators face regarding securing free speech. Between litigatory vultures/attorneys, the potential for over-response by campus security, bad press, angry donors, liability insurance claims and premium rises, and of course, pesky angry students, all the incentives are there for administrators to lay a velvet fist down on the often messy and ugly exercise of the First Amendment. And much like rather gauche velvet can do, policies and actions limiting speech have slowly drawn over many schools as a soft yet smothering blanket.
We again tentatively welcome Sessions and the DOJ in protecting our collective right to speak and assemble, in whatever form that takes on campuses. The devil, of course, is in the details. This board and others will be watching for a Trojan Horse here. If this overture merely obfuscates a political attempt to stifle legitimate debate and protest of Confederate monuments, or provide legal cover for the deliberate provocation of violence by speakers sympathetic to Republicans, others sympathetic to the Trump Administration, or especially racial supremacists, it will not be hard to spot or combat. That being said, all of the above groups, and every single person and group, have a Constitutional right to speak here. It is in fact Mr. Sessions’ solemn responsibility to honor and defend that right. Assuming that is his sole interest, we support him and the Department of Justice in that endeavor.