Members of the Texas Senate State Affairs Committee will exam this question Wednesday: Are students’ freedom of speech rights being squelched on state college campuses? The special legislative hearing at Texas State University in San Marcos follows the school's own high profile free speech conflict.
This past fall, campus leaders at Texas Southern University in Houston cancelled a speech by State Rep. Briscoe Cain, an outspoken member of the House’s Freedom Caucus, after dozens of protesters filled the event area to disrupt the speech.
Around that same time, Texas State University had its own student First Amendment rights conflict brewing. Rudy Martinez, a columnist for the University Star student newspaper, had written an opinion piece titled, “Your DNA Is An Abomination.” The college's student government criticized the piece as “anti-white.”
Under pressure from university officials, the newspaper fired Martinez and his editors. Texas State University President Denise Trauth condemned the article as “abhorrent.” In a statement, Trauth said while she appreciated the free exchange of ideas the student newspaper represented, she still expected student editors to use good judgment in the type of content they print.
But Al Kaufman, a constitutional law professor at St. Mary’s University’s School of Law in San Antonio, said just because they are students doesn’t mean they forfeit their rights as members of the media.
“The fact that it’s a university newspaper still gives rights to the writers and the staff on the newspaper,” Kaufman said. “As long as they have a paper that’s open for students to write, they’re really supposed allow students to write their opinions without trying to control the content of the opinion.”
State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Tyler and vice chair of the Senate’s State Affairs Committee said it is essential that all speech is protected, especially on state college campuses.
“When we try to stifle unpopular views or views that we don’t share, we’re really in trouble,” Hughes said. “The problem is really content-based restrictions on speech, where the university says that position you are taking is so offensive, so wrong, so contrary to what we believe — our values — that we are not going to let you say that; we’re not going to let you bring that speaker to campus."
Hughes says the idea of protecting free speech on college campuses will likely be one of the larger issues that lawmakers will address when they return for the 2019 legislative session.
Ryan Poppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RyanPoppe1