Morgan Bailey set up a pro-life display on Clemson University’s campus last year. It was supposed to stay in place for three days, with Bailey and other students from Clemson’s Young America’s Foundation chapter on hand to talk to any interested students about the issue.
“We set it up the first day. Everything was fine,” Bailey said in an interview. “And we even had some discussions with people.”
But on the second day, Morgan left the display to get coffee. Minutes later, she returned to find the signs had been torn down.
A webcam recorded students tearing down the display, and Bailey found pieces in trash cans around campus. Because she knew debates on the abortion issue can be fierce, she wasn’t surprised at the vandalism, “just really disappointed.”
Clemson has seen a string of free speech-related incidents dating back to 2006. But the problem isn’t unique to that campus. Nor are conservative students and guest speakers the only people who have experienced what has become known as the “heckler’s veto” when venturing on campuses in South Carolina and beyond.
Over the past three years, students and faculty on both sides of political debates have had their voices silenced. Some have even been physically threatened because of their beliefs. In 2017, students at Evergreen State College in Washington state — a school with a progressive tradition — shouted down a faculty member and chased him off campus. The threats were so severe that he had to go into hiding. At William & Mary in Virginia, Black Lives Matter protesters shouted down an ACLU representative.
South Carolina officials are taking notice. Legislators are considering a proposal to protect free speech on campus that requires public colleges and universities to adopt a mission statement in favor of free speech and include a review of the statement during freshman orientation.
Lawmakers in bordering states have taken action. North Carolina law now requires state university officials to consider “a range of disciplinary sanctions” when anyone who is part of the campus community, including students and faculty, “substantially interferes with the protected free expression rights of others.”
The law also includes due process rights for students charged with such violations.
The idea that students could face consequences for violating someone else’s right to speak is not a new one. In fact, North Carolina’s provisions are based on a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Tinker v. Des Moines) and “the Woodward Report,” a proposal Yale issued in 1974 to protect free expression.
In Georgia, lawmakers last year passed a law requiring state universities to produce an annual report on “barriers ... to free expression.” The Georgia law also says that state university governing boards must adopt policies allowing students and faculty to “assemble and engage in spontaneous expressive activity,” as long as the activity is legal and does not interfere with instruction.
Lawmakers in other states have addressed these same issues and more. In Arizona, so-called “free speech zones” — notoriously small areas of campus set aside for demonstrations and that isolate free expression — are now outlawed on public college campuses in the state. Instead, all public spaces on those campuses (such as sidewalks and lawns) are designated as areas where students and faculty can protest or demonstrate. The governing board for Wisconsin’s state university system has also adopted policies similar to those in Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia.
University officials should take threats to student safety seriously.
But it is not a university’s role to protect students from new ideas, offensive or otherwise. Allowing one student to silence another because the former takes offense does neither student any favors.
Jonathan Butcher is a senior policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy.