When stern-faced pundits warn of a free speech crisis on college campuses, there’s usually good reason to be skeptical. As I’ve written before, students have an unprecedented level of access to platforms where they can both express their own views and consume the views of others. Seriously, it’s never been harder to shut up — or to ignore the constant cacophony of the #discourse.
That being said, I think it’s important to be vigilant against threats toward honest and open expression — no, not from impassioned protesters calling BS on faithless toxic grandstanding, but from the institutions that actually have power over our lives. That’s why I was concerned to read about the University’s recent decision to start enforcing a policy that requires student organizations to obtain permission before hosting guest speakers on campus.
As it turns out, the policy is far less heavy-handed than it sounds. Nevertheless, enforcing it on all student organizations places an unnecessary burden on the vast majority of groups that are unlikely to require guidance from UT officials. This decision addresses a real problem, but in doing so it creates a bigger problem.
I should make one thing clear: the University’s guest speaker policy is content-neutral. “The University is not in the business of accepting or rejecting speakers based on their points of view, and we never will be,” said UT spokesman J.B. Bird. “That goes against the spirit of academic freedom, and it goes against the high value we place on freedom of speech.”
Instead, the policy exists to ensure that student organizations give due consideration to safety and logistics before inviting speakers. “We want to have advance notice so that we’re prepared when speakers come,” Bird said. “The University is always going to plan for the safety of people participating in an event.”
On the other hand, there’s a reason the policy is being enforced now. “Many on-campus activists feel that the University was purposely targeting political events that might occur during this election season,” said University Democrats president Andrew Herrera. Meanwhile, Bird cited recent events, such as the violence in Charlottesville and “riots that took place on some other universities around the country over the last year and a half,” as catalysts for the administration’s new approach.
“We’ve seen that atmospheres that turn violent often make it impossible to have a free exchange of ideas, and so we want to make sure we’re creating an atmosphere that’s conducive to freedom of speech,” Bird said. “Enforcing the rules that we have on the books about getting advance permission allows us to do that in a way that’s content-neutral and always will be.”
But there are only a handful of organizations on campus that would plausibly invite speakers that present security concerns. Sure, there are organizations like the UT chapter of Turning Point USA, which has hosted two controversial speakers on campus in the past month, incurring protests on both occasions. But there’s also, like, the Beekeeping Society. Should we really complicate things for the latter on behalf of the former?
“I believe that registered student organizations should be trusted to make responsible decisions about who they bring to campus,” Herrera said. “Reporting these things is a bureaucratic necessity, but seeking approval comes off as UT policing every aspect of how we want to enrich the student body.”
The solution here is not to enforce this rule exclusively on potentially problematic organizations. This would be neither equitable nor fair. Instead, Herrera’s distinction between reporting and seeking approval proves crucial. UT officials can reasonably expect to be informed of who’s going to be on campus, but they should nix the permission process. By trusting students, the administration can offer more freedom to students without compromising safety.
Groves is a philosophy senior from Dallas.