2 years ago
Nancy Fairbank
Commentary

“Campus Cop Blocks Students from Promoting Conservative Group” boldly proclaimed a Fox News headline from April 24 over a video purportedly showing an egregious violation of student rights. The premise of the article was that a UT Dallas campus police officer blocked a conservative student group, the Network of Enlightened Women (NeW), from petitioning students about campus carry. After watching the video, it was clear that there was no oppressive campus police officer telling students to shut up and jog on.  Nevertheless, the issue of free speech on the UT Dallas campus was still thrust into the limelight and I support the UT Dallas administration’s move to change the policy so that students no longer need permission from the dean of students to exercise free speech on our public campus.

While I don’t think that NeW was targeted because they are a conservative group like certain news sources reported (we’re in Texas, y’all), I also do not believe that student groups should have to request permission from the Dean of Students in order to petition on campus. As someone who disagrees strongly with NeW’s anti-feminist principles, I still want them to be able to express their opinions on campus. Putting a video up on Fox News and creating a controversy about conservative students vs. a liberal administration was not a constructive way to address the issue of free speech on campus, but I am glad that the issue was indeed raised.

In the video, I watched Officer Ted Palmer politely informing students from NeW that they needed the Dean of Students’s written permission in order to petition and solicit signatures. The problem was not with the officer, but rather with the policy he is charged with enforcing, which overly limits free speech on campus.

The 2014 UT Dallas catalog policy regarding free speech requires registered student organizations to obtain permission from the Dean of Students prior to both soliciting and distributing materials on campus.

As a member of multiple student organizations, I don’t understand why officially registered student organizations need to get permission from the Dean in order to distribute materials. This adds an unnecessary restriction to free speech on campus. Even Student Government, the voice of students on campus, is limited in how it can communicate with the student body. Student Government representatives have previously been asked to stay at a reserved table and to not go around surveying students, even though this action is crucial to help bring student voices to the administration.

An additional area of UT Dallas policy I find troubling requires a registered student organization to fill out a formal application and submit it to the Dean of Students in order to bring a guest speaker to campus. The application must be completed at least 48 hours before the scheduled event or before any advertising takes place for the event.

In this policy, a guest speaker is defined as “a speaker or performer who is not a student, faculty member, or staff member.” This rule may not be particularly well enforced, as I have never heard of a campus group or organization going through this process. However, the idea of the rule is troubling. If a student group wants to bring in a political speaker, an expert in their field or even a guest lecturer with relatively radical views, they should not have to receive permission from the Dean of Students. While I understand that informing the school that a certain speaker is coming to campus is important, the requirement for permission should be removed. Asking for permission implies the potential for permission to be denied.

Free speech on college campuses has been a crucial necessity in American history, from protesting the Vietnam War to fighting for LGBT rights. For a public university, UT Dallas has a surprising number of restrictions on free speech. These restrictions could be used to keep us insulated from the types of issues that have been historically addressed and discussed by students. Some campuses in the 1980s allowed more free speech than modern-day UT Dallas, actually supporting the building of shantytowns in the middle of campus to protest apartheid. These shanties might have been a blight on the beautiful grounds of various universities (just think of what Peter Walker, architect of the North Mall, might say!), but they made an important point in a very visible manner.

While our students and administration are discussing a policy change that would relax free speech restrictions at UT Dallas, the nation as a whole is examining the idea of free speech following the shooting in Garland during a ‘Draw Mohammed’ Contest.

What I’ve learned from both of these events is this: We can condemn certain types of speech, from religious baiting to anti-feminist rhetoric, but when push comes to shove we should still hold free speech as one of the most important values we have in this country and on college campuses. There certainly are reasonable limitations to be placed on campus speech, including banning hate speech or a speaker that might incite violence and cause harm to students. However, just because certain messages make us uncomfortable or angry does not mean they should be banned or that they should require prior permission to be heard. We need to remove our emotions from these situations and uphold free speech no matter how much we hate the messages it may bring to our campuses and communities.

Free speech is difficult. It’s dirty, it’s messy, it’s ugly. Few people want to be asked for the millionth time on the way to class if they believe in Jesus, or open carry, or abortion or better Wi-Fi on campus. But limiting free speech just because it can be irritating undermines our core American values. It also subverts the goal of universities, which is to introduce students to new ideas and thoughts, however uncomfortable they might make people.

Changing our policy so that registered student organizations will no longer need the permission of the Dean of Students to petition, distribute materials, and bring guest speakers to campus will allow free speech to flourish and for new ideas to surround our students. As our student body grows, the freedom to exchange opinions and controversies will grow with it. Students will challenge each other and themselves, perhaps questioning long held beliefs or developing new convictions. This is what college is ultimately about. Free speech is an important part of campus culture and something I look forward to seeing more of at UT Dallas.