Free speech is often debated on university campuses, and UT-Austin is no different. The question of who should be permitted to speak on campus or at university-recognized events can be a hot button topic. But the question generally breaks down to who gets to decide: Can students be trusted with the power to invite speakers, or should the University have censorship rights? University administration should not abridge the First Amendment rights of students. In an effort to promote discussion, student organizations should have the exclusive right to invite speakers to their events.
The University of Texas “has recently started enforcing regulations for approving guest speakers for student organization events.” The University stated the regulation has long been in place but is simply increasing enforcement of the rule. The decision to force organizations to gain approval will chill constructive discussion on campus and frustrates the purpose of the First Amendment.
The right to free speech is Constitutionally protected to promote discourse about challenging topics. Censoring the beliefs of an organization does nothing but widen the divide between opposing sides. The censored party feels unvalued and, as retired Justice Kennedy would put it, violates their dignity. On the other hand, an opposing party either is oblivious to the disagreement, believing that all minds agree, or the party is not themselves challenged. This process of debate is not easy, and at times it is ugly, but without the process, an ignorant groupthink mentality develops
and ideologies divide further.
This problem arises even if the University never exercises their discretion to deny invitation of a guest. The threat of censorship alone is enough to chill activity, and when something as important as the right to free speech is implicated, mere fear of discomfort or even protest does not justify abridgment.
The fear held by the University is not unreasonable, though not permissive of their actions. Rather than deny entry to controversial speakers, the University should educate students on methods of civil protest. Same as the administration, students should not infringe on other students right to speak freely, but students can debate, refute and, at times, protest. This does not mean interrupting speakers, destroying banners, or anything remotely near violence. You protest against those you disagree with — call it hate speech if you like — by listening to what they say and, when they are finished, challenging them. Be educated and ask hard questions. Go to those events put on by the organization you disagree with and debate. They have to give you the same respect in speech as you give them. Challenging hateful speakers this way certainly is not easy and can be scary, but this is the only path that can lead to resolution.
The path chosen by the University is fearful and will not help in preparing students to change the world. Freezing Constitutional rights leads to a façade of peace on campus but, ultimately, breeds division.
Hunter Bezner is a law student at the University of Virginia and a UT alum.