Romano: Conservative or liberal, speakers should be heard on college campuses

Protesters march against white nationalist Richard Spencer's speech in October at the Phillips Center on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. [Times files (2017)]
Protesters march against white nationalist Richard Spencer's speech in October at the Phillips Center on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. [Times files (2017)]
Published February 8 2018

Let’s get this out of the way first:

A Senate bill that’s supposed to promote free speech on university campuses is kind of dopey. At least the way it’s currently written.

The bill (SB 1234) would make universities susceptible to lawsuits if a speaker on campus was shouted down by protesters. In effect, it makes universities the enforcers for First Amendment rights.

Considering that the recent climate in Tallahassee has tilted toward less regulation and less spending, it seems curious that a Senate committee would look favorably on a bill that invites more regulation and potentially expensive lawsuits for state schools.

Not to mention, the bill could possibly have the opposite effect of its intent since universities might be inclined to steer clear of controversial speakers because of the potential hassles involved.

Now, having said all of that:

The bill’s supporters have a point.

The First Amendment has taken a beating lately, and college campuses have provided a lot of the pitchforks and torches. And that seems antithetical to the mission of higher learning.

Just because you do not agree with the views of a speaker does not mean you have the right to silence them. That’s pretty much the entire basis of this nation’s principles.

If you believe in freedom, if you believe in equality, then you must also believe in the rights of someone you adamantly oppose to express their beliefs without fear of being exiled or shouted down.

And yet, time after time, we’re seeing that on college campuses.

In the past few months, the president of the University of North Texas tried unsuccessfully to stop a speech by Donald Trump Jr. The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., disinvited a Jesuit priest who has urged the Catholic church to engage in dialogue with the LGBT community. A speech by a conservative state lawmaker at Texas Southern University was canceled after protesters showed up. A question-and-answer session with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra at Whittier College was canceled when hecklers in "Make America Great Again’’ hats loudly interrupted the program.

And a speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer was disrupted by protesters at the University of Florida in October. I will argue all day long that Spencer is a small-minded twit, but I will also argue that the people who interrupted his speech have no claim to the moral high ground.

"Free speech only works when people’s rights are respected regardless of their viewpoints,’’ said Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Cohn’s organization, which includes funding from some major conservative groups, has successfully gotten similar legislation passed in other states and generally supports the Florida bill.

The problem is the Florida bill goes further than others.

Instead of just mandating that universities cannot limit First Amendment activity to designated "free speech zones’’ — and even the left-leaning ACLU agrees with FIRE on that idea — the bill proposed by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, also wants campuses to be responsible for controlling protesters.

The problem with that idea is not political, but practical.

The Spencer speech, for instance, drew thousands of people in opposition. Gainesville and UF police did a marvelous job of keeping the peace, but were hard-pressed to stop protesters from interrupting Spencer. And it would have been a nightmare to figure out how many protesters were UF students, and how many were simply outraged citizens.

This doesn’t mean universities should abdicate their role in promoting a safe and open discourse on campus, but the Legislature does not need to dangle an economic sword over their heads either.

Sadly, but predictably, the bill passed a Senate committee on Tuesday along partisan lines. Cohn agrees the bill’s language could use some tweaking and is hopeful of bridging that gap in the coming days.

Meanwhile, you might want to consider what happened at UCLA recently and consider the problems universities are facing in these polarized times.

The school put together a panel of experts to discuss a pressing issue, but the event was interrupted by protesters and had to be moved to a different venue.

The topic?

A discussion on free speech.