Chilly winds batter speech on campus
Free Speech | Appeals court sounds alarm on university speech policies
by Steve West
Posted 11/03/20, 03:33 pm
A federal appeals court on Wednesday said what many conservatives have been saying for years: Universities are using hate speech policies to punish culturally disfavored views.
In a 32-page opinion, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found a lower court was wrong to throw out students’ lawsuit against the University of Texas at Austin. Student members of Speech First, a free-speech advocacy group, sued the school, saying campus policies made them feel threatened or intimidated to speak their minds. Circuit Judge Edith Jones, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, said the vague speech regulations and wide range of penalties could cause enough injury to give the students standing to sue.
“Because their views do not mirror those of many on campus, their speech may be deemed ‘harassment,’ ‘rude,’ ‘uncivil,’ or ‘offensive,’ as those terms are defined in the university’s policies,” Jones wrote. She noted many would self-censor rather than face investigation by the university’s Campus Climate Response Team, a group that reports and punishes students for bias incidents.
“In our current national condition … in which ‘institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishment instead of considered reforms,’ courts must be especially vigilant against assaults on speech in the Constitution’s care,” Jones wrote, telling the District Court to take the case to trial.
Vague and sometimes biased policies have created hostile climates toward conservative viewpoints on other college campuses, and damage can linger even after administrators revise policies. Florida State University removed its Student Government Association Senate president, Jack Denton, after he shared his personal Catholic beliefs, including criticisms of Black Lives Matter and the American Civil Liberties Union, in private text conversations with other students. FSU’s student Supreme Court temporarily reinstated Denton on Oct. 26 while his federal lawsuit, brought by Alliance Defending Freedom, proceeds.
Read more Liberties Sign up for the Liberties email
Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.