That backlash is now upon them.
Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia have all passed campus-speech bills, with the Virginia bill garnering broad bipartisan support and a Democratic governor’s signature. And in North Carolina, a campus-speech bill was just approved by the state legislature and passed into law when a Democratic governor declined to exercise his veto.
That law, modeled on draft legislation created by the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, may portend more of the same. “The North Carolina Restore Campus Free Speech Act accomplishes the lion’s share of what the Goldwater model proposed, including important steps forward on discipline for shout-downs,” Stanley Kurtz argues at National Review. “Goldwater-based bills are under consideration in several states, with more likely to follow next year. Any state bill can be strengthened in a second legislative round if universities continue to abuse their powers.”
As he sees it, “Campus speech legislation is now in play as never before. Administrators will have to take that into account when they decide how to handle free speech.”
Indeed, bills based on the Goldwater Institute model, or very similar to it, are under consideration, or likely to be considered, in states including Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Louisianna, Michigan, and Texas. Variations and amendments could make the difference between a law that would do more harm than good and vice versa.
In Wisconsin, for example, I argued that a campus-speech bill’s flaws made a vote against it the best course. But in North Carolina, legislators appear to have improved on the Goldwater Institute model, informed by analysis from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. It offers improved free-speech protections to students without chilling mere protest or mandating overly harsh punishments.
In states where such bills are still being debated, legislators need to avoid prohibiting negligible disruptions, like booing, a form of dissent perfectly consistent with robust free speech; and laws that overburden universities with significant new administrative requirements, or incentivize frivolous accusations and disciplinary investigations, which can themselves be used to chill freedom of speech and expression.
So far, most of the action in state legislatures, congressional hearings on campus speech that I noted earlier this week, and Claremont McKenna’s decision to severely punish students who shut down a speaking event featuring Heather Mac Donald have come during the summer months, when many student activists are away from campus. One wonders whether the fall semester will include protests against these actions; or more attempts to shut down speech; or declines in no-platforming.
Given that Congress, the Supreme Court, most state legislatures, a majority of voters, and huge numbers of college students and faculty oppose the tactic of event shutdowns and no-platforming, at least insofar as they happen at public universities subject to the First Amendment, it is hard to see what more shutdowns would accomplish, and easy to imagine legislative blowback that goes much farther.