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Education

As Smoke Bomb Disrupts University of Texas Austin, a Strong Speech Bill Is Passed

University of Texas campus in Austin, Texas (Jon Herskovitz/Reuters)

Earlier this week, just around the time a smoke bomb and fire alarm disrupted a pro-life talk to a group of student conservatives at University of Texas Austin, the Texas State House approved HB 2100, a comprehensive campus free-speech bill that could become one of the strongest such laws in the nation. The legislative story has an unusual twist. The sponsor of HB 2100 is Representative Briscoe Cain, himself the victim of a simultaneous shout-down and disinvitation at Texas Southern University in 2017. On Monday, Cain masterfully held off repeated attempts by Democratic legislators to weaken his campus free-speech bill with amendments. At the same time Cain joined with a Democrat to substantially strengthen the bill.

The Texas case shows that the campus free-speech crisis is simultaneously spinning out of control and kicking off serious efforts to restore this fundamental liberty. We’ve already gotten too blasé about campus-speech disruptions. Only two years ago, a professor at Middlebury College was left in a neck brace and with a concussion by the shout-down of Charles Murray. No one was hurt by the smoke bomb and fire alarm at UT Austin this week, but it’s easy to see how injuries could have occurred had there been a panic to escape the scene. It’s only a matter of time before disruptions like this yield injuries. Yet they’re already coming to seem semi-normal.

Having gone through one of the most egregious shout-down-turned-disinvitation incidents I’ve ever seen, no one is better placed than Representative Briscoe Cain to take the measure of the problem and do something about it. Cain was invited to address the Federalist Society at Texas Southern University (TSU) in 2017. When disruptors interfered with his talk, they were promptly removed by campus police. Then, incredibly, Texas State University president Austin Lane called the disruptors back in and shut down Cain’s talk on the bogus excuse that it hadn’t gotten the proper bureaucratic approvals. It was an ultimate example of administrators caving to student disruptors, and it happened in real time and on video.

You can bet Cain’s bill has strong protections against both shout-downs and disinvitations. In fact the disinvitation provision is one of the most detailed and specific I’ve seen. Cain has lent his own touch to a comprehensive bill that draws heavily on the model published by Arizona’s Goldwater Institute (a model I co-authored along with Jim Manley and Jonathan Butcher). And working with Democratic Representative Terry Canales, Cain managed to waive “sovereign immunity” in order to allow individuals whose rights have been violated to bring suit against the university and recover reasonable court costs and attorney’s fees.

In these and other ways, Cain’s House bill is significantly stronger than the campus free-speech bill that earlier passed the Texas Senate. At the same time, Cain’s bill adopts and adapts the strongest provisions of the Senate bill, of which there are several. I hope Cain can preserve as much of the House bill as possible in the House-Senate conference to come. His bill is already a blend of the best provisions from both bodies.

The oversight provision in HB 2100 is particularly desirable in comparison to the Senate bill. The Senate bill has no enforcement mechanism and simply asks university administrators to report on themselves. That’s meaningless. Obviously, they’re going to give themselves a pat on the back.

We already rely on college administrators at public universities to protect the First Amendment. The problem is, they don’t. Instead they actually promulgate unconstitutional speech codes, speech zones, and bias-reporting systems. So why would you pass a campus free-speech bill that offers no enforcement mechanisms — no teeth?

I’ll bet TSU President Austin Lane would have thought twice about letting the disruptors off and shutting down Cain’s talk if he knew that his governing board was going to be issuing an annual report on his successes or failures at upholding free speech. A bad report could easily be seized on by trustees to replace a university president, or by the legislature to cut appropriations. With its oversight system and much else, Cain’s bill has the kind of teeth required to solve the problems we’re facing in Texas.

The smoke bomb incident is far from the first challenge we’ve seen to campus free speech in Texas. In addition to the Cain shout-down, David Horowitz had a talk disrupted at the University of Houston in 2017. UT Austin has had an incident that almost came to blows when a pro-Israel speaker was disrupted by Students for Justice in Palestine. And Speech First, a new group using the courts to defend freedom of speech has launched a powerful suit against UT Austin’s outrageous bias-reporting system. Conservatives at UT Austin have had signs torn up and worse. Many of these incidents edge right up to the point of violence. That line is going to be crossed unless legislation that deals with things such as discipline for shout-downs gets passed. Administrators by themselves are never going to force consequences on campus speech disruptors, which is why the problem is still going strong.

Briscoe Cain’s HB 2100 is the antidote to smoke bombs disrupting pro-life talks, and the even worse incidents sure to come if something isn’t done soon. I hope that the Texas State Senate accepts the added provisions of the excellent House bill. And I hope that the citizens of Texas make that point clear to their representatives. That smoke bomber is messing with Texas, and that’s always a bad idea.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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