“Truth is valuable and shall overcome.”
Georgia State University’s motto reminds us that college can be a place where students seek to discover more about themselves and the world around them.
The key to achieving this ideal, however, is an open, rigorous exchange of ideas.
Policies like the Forming Open and Robust University Minds Act can help foster such an environment. Senate Bill 318, introduced last week by state Sen. William Ligon (R-Brunswick) will guarantee college students the freedom to express themselves on public university campuses – codifying the same constitutional rights they enjoy as American citizens – without discrimination or unjust punishment.
Protecting these rights remains a challenge. Speech zones limit the areas where students can assemble and express themselves to small and out-of-the-way locations. For example, a University of Georgia student group was ordered to remove a debt clock display (to draw attention to the nation’s mounting debt) because it was placed in an area outside of a speech zone. The university ended up changing its zone policy to allow campus organizations more space to express their views, but only after the original campus group sued to defend its rights.
Speech codes, which some schools in Georgia use to prohibit speech considered “beyond a reasonable state of opinion” that may cause “humiliation or stress” to others, can erode expression when applied in questionable ways. Valdosta State University deemed student Hayden Barnes a “clear and present danger” and expelled him. His crime was making a cut-and-paste collage protesting the environmental impact of a planned construction of two parking garages on campus. Although the university didn’t cite a speech code violation, the effect of the action on Barnes had similar consequences. Barnes and the university eventually came to an agreement, but only after eight years of costly litigation.
This bill will also protect students’ right to freely join together with others. Throughout American history, individuals have come together around shared beliefs, culture, race, gender, ideology, etc. Whether it was the Women’s Suffrage Association, the NAACP, Pro-life and Pro-choice advocacy organizations, all have two things in common: the right to freely associate with one another and express their views. Schools should not discriminate against student groups or withhold funding or benefit, solely because of a group’s expressive activity.
Administrators, many with the best intentions, attempt to balance the right of groups to form and associate against the equally important ideal of creating an open and inclusive campus for all. However, the best way to promote open inquiry and an inclusive campus culture is to ensure all students—regardless of their beliefs—have equal access to resources and to each other. The more diverse student groups on campus, the more students can engage with new ideas, flex their intellectual muscles, and maybe even change their perceptions about themselves and their peers.
Students at public institutions should not have to spend years in court to defend their fundamental freedoms; the FORUM Act will ensure that they won’t have to.
Some of these speech restrictions may have been implemented by well-meaning campus officials who want to protect students from difficult or even ugly ideas. However, classifying certain speech as “offensive,” “inappropriate,” or “harsh” detracts from the university’s role as a place where important societal issues can be discussed.
Campuses have long been places where controversial issues were debated – issues where some took offense to what was being discussed. Despite strong disagreements, these conversations contributed to the richness of the national conversation, allowing us to progress to a freer, more enlightened nation. Speech codes and zones only make it harder for our colleges to add to the public discourse.
There’s even something to be gained from speech deemed “offensive.” When obnoxious or objectionable viewpoints are out in the open, students have more of an opportunity to learn why people believe them and how to respond through their own arguments. These encounters may even lead to growth and a change of perspective.
Other campuses have implemented similar principles espoused by the FORUM Act, such as Ball State University.
We urge our state representatives to pass the FORUM Act, because students should enjoy their basic liberties, of all places, in a public university.
Tony West is deputy state director of Americans for Prosperity-Georgia.