Movements arising on college campuses to restrict speech that may be deemed hateful or offensive have generated efforts in state legislatures — including Utah's — to prevent colleges from imposing time or place restrictions on certain forms of speech. Unfortunately, the issue is muddied on both sides by contorted interpretations or misguided beliefs about speech protections afforded under the First Amendment.
A poll last fall by the Brookings Institution, for example, found that 40 percent of college students do not believe the First Amendment protects “hate” speech, which of course, it does. As odious or abhorrent as a person’s opinion may be on matters of race or sexuality or any other social or political issue, the Constitution grants that person the right to publicly express that opinion, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make his or her audience. Whether it's right, kind or helpful to say such things is a different matter.
The issue has bubbled up in recent months as campus groups have protested sponsored appearances by speakers with extremist positions. A speech last September by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro at the University of Utah generated protests and entreaties to the college to shut down his appearance. Had the university done so, it could have been interpreted as an act of prior restraint by a government entity on protected speech. The matter of prior restraint is at the core of the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the so-called Pentagon Papers case, currently memorialized in the motion picture "The Post."
One wonders if those who sought to stop Shapiro from speaking on the U.’s campus would have taken the side of the Justice Department in trying to restrain The New York Times and The Washington Post from further publishing records detailing government dishonesty in reporting on the progress of the war in Vietnam. The case ended in a vigorous defense of the First Amendment by the high court, which ruled, “Any system of prior restraints of expression comes to this court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity.” The court held that any system of prior restraints would amount to “the most serious and least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.”
That language could not be clearer. Any effort by a college administration, for whatever reason, to prevent someone from speaking before that person takes the podium could certainly come under judicial scrutiny. Thus, efforts like a Senate resolution now before the Utah Legislature to prohibit colleges from enacting any such restrictions are unnecessary.
The resolution, SCR 3, co-sponsored by Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake, and Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, would “strongly encourage” higher education institutions to “vigorously defend the civil liberties of students through policies that ensure the protection of constitutional rights.” As a resolution that proscribes no binding authority, the measure amounts to a “message bill,” and we have no quarrel with the essence of the message. Free and unlimited speech ought to be championed on college campuses.35 comments on this story
But, if campuses act to restrain speech, there are remedies for the aggrieved through the courts. The nation’s highest court has made that clear. What appears to be disturbingly unclear to many people is the peril a free society faces when ideological factions try to set arbitrary standards on what forms of speech will be allowed in the setting of an educational institution. Fortunately, our Constitution prohibits efforts like those now appearing in nascent form on some campuses to conform speech to the fleeting and malleable boundaries of political correctness. In our opinion, such efforts could not be more antithetical to the nation’s founding values or to the essential role of an institution of higher learning.