Texas Lawmakers Probe Issue of Free Speech on College Campuses

The University of Texas at Austin is the flagship of America’s wealthiest public university system. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
AP Photo/Eric Gay

The Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs heard testimony from university officials, students, and the public this week on the topic of free speech and concerns over dwindling First Amendment rights on college campuses which often impact conservatives.

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick tasked the nine member Senate Committee on State Affairs to look at free speech issues to ensure there are “no restrictions on the right of Texas Students to express their views on campus.” Patrick also directed lawmakers to examine freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and the right to assemble on Texas campuses.

The committee held their first meeting Wednesday at Texas State University. Officials from the University of Texas, Southern Methodist University, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, and Texas Southern University attended. Many explained their current campus free speech policies to legislators.

“This issue of course is a hot topic across the country,” said committee Chairwoman Joan Huffman (R-Houston). “We are seeing far too many instances really around the country, where faculty, perhaps students have moved to limit speech when they don’t like what the other people are saying, and we need to put an end to that.”

Huffman stated the committee’s goal was to keep an open mind and try to make sure “we protect everyone’s rights.”

Texas State University President Denise Trauth was pleased to host the inaugural meeting and intended that student voices would be heard. “A university ought to be a place where ideas are expressed and debated, where minds are changed, where all points are respected, where an opinion some consider offensive is protected,” she said, adding, “We live in a divided country so it should not be a surprise our campuses are divided.”

In November, Trauth grappled with an inflammatory opinion piece published in the University Star student-run newspaper: “Your DNA is an Abomination” by student Rudy Martinez. In it, he called “whiteness” a “cultural lie used to perpetuate a system of racist power” and suggested “white death will mean liberation for all.”

The column sparked outrage from many readers. Trauth released a statement saying she was “deeply troubled by the racist opinion column,” calling it “abhorrent and contrary to the core values of inclusion and unity” that the Bobcat community hold dear.

On Wednesday, some students questioned Trauth why she condemned Martinez’s column but did not denounce “white supremacist” or “anti-Semitic” flyers and banners on campus, although a campus spokesman defended Trauth, saying she did and immediately removed the incendiary materials.

Martinez also spoke, contending his op-ed was a cheeky response to racist flyers on campus. He explained his editorial intent was to “throw white people who perhaps never thought about what it means to be white in America” into “cognitive dissonance.’

Texas State student Collin Pruett, the director of operations for two conservative groups, the College Republicans and Bobcat Liberty Council, described campus culture around some issues as hostile. He told lawmakers, “When you have presidents of organizations being spit on, punched, you’re being denied spaces on the quad, or other traditionally free speech areas, it’s a problem.”

Pruett recalled a “snide” response he received one time when his student group tried to hang an event flyer. “The person at the desk said, ‘Why don’t you put it at a church, where they might agree with you?’”

He also said it took two semesters to get Bobcat Liberty Council on campus “because of the lack of faculty” available in spite of Trauth’s remarks that she never heard of a case where a student group had difficulty in finding a sponsoring advisor.

Breitbart Texas later spoke to Pruett. He felt the meeting, which lasted nearly five hours, was generally productive. He underscored that freedom of speech issues, while they more adversely impact college conservatives, are beginning to impact their liberal peers on campus. “Not only do conservative groups say it is difficult, the college Democrats also say it is difficult.”

Pruett questioned if administrators like Trauth “willfully misrepresent what is going on at the campuses or if they are just unaware.” He believes they are unaware and “do not understand the climate on their campuses” or “how their own policies affect conservative students.”

“Unfortunately, right now, all of the ideas that are being presented on campuses are coming from the Left but that needs to change and the only people who have the power to change it is the Texas Legislature,” said Pruett.

He worries these institutions of higher learning do not represent “the will of the majority of Texans” and until it stops, college students in Texas, as in other states, will continue to be indoctrinated “with insidious and un-American ideals.”

Pruett said he would like to see the Texas Legislature pass a bill that protects freedom of speech on campus and guarantees students will be exposed to a “marketplace of ideas.”

In late October, the Lt. Governor tasked this Senate committee to study campus free speech issues in preparation for the 2019 legislative session. This charge came two weeks after Black Lives Matter protesters shut down a speaking engagement by conservative state Representative Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) at the Texas Southern University (TSU) campus.

Subsequently, Cain wrote to Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus, urging them to make “protecting free speech on college campuses” a priority in the next Texas legislative session. Breitbart Texas reported Cain emphasized the importance of safeguarding “the free speech rights of students from out-of-control administrations and students who don’t believe in the First Amendment.”

TSU also suddenly rescinded an invitation to U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) to deliver the 2017 spring commencement address when students at the historically black campus threatened to protest the senator’s appearance based on his support for the Trump administration. Meanwhile, the graduation ceremony continued with two Congress members also invited to speak, Democrat U.S. Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green, both from Houston.

In November, Breitbart Texas reported protesters staged a walkout to disrupt David Horowitz from speaking on “The Terror Network on American Campuses” at the University of Houston. A year earlier, student organizers fearful of backlash from anti-Israel groups on the University of Texas at Austin abruptly canceled an engagement with American-Israeli columnist, author, and Breitbart News contributor Caroline Glick.

The Senate committee plans to hold more meetings throughout the year to study other items tasked to them so they can propose legislation that remedies this situation during the next legislative session.

Follow Merrill Hope, a member of the original Breitbart Texas team, on Twitter.

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