Free Speech or Hate Speech?

Milo Yiannopoulos, the polarizing Breitbart News editor, speaks at California Polytechnic State University as part of his "The Dangerous Faggot Tour" of college campuses, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017, in San Luis Obispo, Calif. His speech was met with dozens of angry protesters outside a campus theater. (David Middlecamp/The Tribune (of San Luis Obispo) via AP)

David Middlecamp

A Louisiana university’s attempt to suffocate free speech proved Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards wrong. The state does need legislation to help protect free speech on Louisiana college and university campuses.

After this year’s legislative regular session, Edwards vetoed a bill by Republican Rep. Lance Harris that would have required a closer look at free speech protections on state campuses.  Most of Edwards’ vetoes targeted bills by critics like Harris, who questioned the governor's plans to expand government and raise taxes.

Edwards’ veto message described the Harris bill as “unnecessary and overly burdensome.” The governor also argued that adequate protections of free speech rights on Louisiana campuses are already in place. But the University of Louisiana Monroe earlier this month called that assumption into question.

For a research paper, students in a ULM fraternity used a private social media network to exchange ideas like bringing back racial segregation. The thread became known to university administrators, who then suspended the organization and referred the students involved to the campus disciplinary process.

Student organizations exist on a campus according to its rules, making the ULM punishment of the group appropriate. However, ULM’s threatening students for private speech — regardless of how immature, intellectually indefensible, and spectacularly failing in humor the communications may be — is entirely inappropriate and troublesome for an institution built upon the free exchange of ideas.

The student conduct policy apparently in question, which states that it “does not permit any actions, including verbal or written statements, that discriminate against an individual or group on the basis of sex, race, color, creed, national origin, or physical or mental disability,” appears overly broad. In essence, any private communication by a student that ULM’s administration discovers and deems discriminatory can become the basis for sanctions.

This kind of overreach seems consistent with practices generally seen at other Louisiana universities. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that aspires to “defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities,” with special emphasis on free speech, Louisiana schools fare poorly in supporting such freedoms.

Of the nine University of Louisiana System institutions, FIRE tabs five in its “red light” category for protecting free speech, meaning the school has at least one policy that “unambiguously infringes on what is or should be protected expression.” A “yellow light” label, assigned to three UL system schools, means they have policies so vague that they invite restrictions on free expression. Interestingly, ULM is the only ULS member currently not rated by FIRE, although that omission seems unlikely to continue in light of this incident.

FIRE, which gives legal help to students wronged by speech codes, is also alarmed by LSU's policies. Last year, Northwestern State University changed an overly restrictive demonstration policy after FIRE publicized it.

A university should impart knowledge and stimulate critical thinking, dispelling ignorance. It doesn’t exist to discipline students for statements, no matter how inane and inflammatory, with which it disagrees that are made privately and/or don’t use university resources. ULM should restore its credibility by dropping its prosecution of these insensitive students.

With ULM's overreach in mind, the Legislature should again send to Edwards a bill that prods Louisiana higher education institutions to protect free speech. Hopefully, if that legislation does cross Edwards’ desk, he'll put politics aside and sign it this time.

Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics, www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email jeffsadowtheadvocate@yahoo.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.