Free speech

Now that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill earlier this month to expand free speech rights on college campuses, Weatherford College is making moves toward implementing the new law.

Senate Bill 18, authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, requires institutions to have uniform free speech policies and create disciplinary actions for students who impede on a person’s or group’s free speech activities. The bill would also create a process for addressing free speech infringement complaints.

According to the bill, higher education institutions must allow common outdoor areas on campus to be “deemed traditional public forums” and allow anyone to express themselves as long as the expression is not unlawful or disrupts the institution from functioning. Institutions can restrict expressive activities if the restrictions are “narrowly tailored to serve a significant institutional interest,” allow people to gather or hand out written information without institution permission, provide an alternative way of expression and have “clear, published, content-neutral and viewpoint-neutral criteria.”

For speakers on college campuses, higher education institutions are prohibited from considering “anticipated controversy related to the event” when approving speakers or determining fees to be charged. Institutions also must consider just “content-neutral and viewpoint-neutral criteria related to the needs of the event,” like accommodations, venue, security or a student organization’s or faculty member’s history of compliance.

“There are many positives to SB 18,” WC Student Services Executive Dean Adam Finley said. “It gives institutions clear guidance on creating policies to ensure free speech. It helps protect student’s rights across Texas. And lastly, it presents the opportunity to communicate the importance of free speech.”

WC General Counsel Dan Curlee also said SB 18 provides clarity into WC’s responsibility.

Moving forward, the signing of SB 18 means that WC’s current policies will need to be revised to comply with the new law, Curlee said. Changing policy is a formal process involving the college’s board of trustees and the college cabinet.

“The challenge will be to properly interpret the new legislation and make certain that our policies align with it,” Curlee said.

When asked about establishing disciplinary actions and a process for addressing complaints, Curlee said this part will also be challenging.

“This issue will be challenging, as we will seek a thoughtful balance of the free speech rights relating to multiple views of competing ideas,” Curlee said.

Notice of the published policies will be posted on the college’s website, which is done for all policies, Curlee said.

State Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, was a co-author on the bill, and Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, was a co-sponsor. In previous interviews before the bill was signed, both spoke in favor of open dialogue and a multitude of different opinions on college campuses, though King specifically mentioned that dialogue should be carried out respectfully.

The law goes into effect on Sept. 1.

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