Univ. of Tennessee System to Ban Outside Speakers Lacking Sponsors: Why?

by Robert Shibley

The Chattanooga Times-Free Press reports today on the University of Tennessee’s upcoming system-wide ban on outside speakers who lack student group sponsors (read: street preachers):

Free speech, for some at least, soon will require sponsorship on University of Tennessee system campuses.

Though no one ended up in handcuffs like a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student did in November, a group of controversial street preachers returned to the UTC campus recently and reignited the discussion about whether taxpayer-backed universities should be a forum for public demonstration.

The issue is divisive. But the UT board of trustees already has weighed in.

A policy passed by trustees at their February meeting will require parties unaffiliated with UT to obtain the endorsement of a campus organization, faculty member or university faction before coming to any campus in the UT system to spread their message, regardless of what that message is.

This isn’t necessarily unconstitutional, although Tennesseans who support these institutions with their tax dollars may find it quite vexing to be told they have no right to walk onto those campuses and talk to people—especially in light of the fact that neighboring Virginia is moving toward fewer campus speech restrictions, not more.

It’s pretty obvious that the ban on outside speakers coming on campus without sponsorship (and group sponsorship at that—individual students can’t invite people) is directed at the street preachers who arrive on campus to preach anti-gay/anti-promiscuity messages.

My own opinion is that such preachers are obviously and miserably failing in what they’re trying to do while hurting the cause of free speech on campus through engendering pointless antagonism. But the question needs to be asked: Why do colleges persist in infantilizing students by taking steps to shield them from these people? Do they really believe there will be no anti-gay (or anti-whatever) sentiment once these preachers are banned from campus? Do they think they are doing students a favor by leaving them unprepared to deal with dissent?

No. The answer is that colleges wish to make a political statement about how they feel about the message being conveyed, and they are willing to disregard both free speech principles and their job of preparing students to participate in a free society in order to do so. These street preachers might be awfully unappealing, but our real contempt should be saved for those who sacrifice foundational principles for a fleeting political boost.