State Senate takes up free speech on Texas college campuses

Austin

SAN MARCOS, Texas (KXAN) — A Texas Senate panel met Wednesday to address free speech on campuses across the state.

During the meeting, held at the student center on the campus of Texas State University in San Marcos, lawmakers heard invited and public testimony relating to the First Amendment.

One of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s interim charges aims to “ascertain any restrictions on Freedom of Speech rights that Texas students face in expressing their views on campus along with freedoms of the press, religion, and assembly.”

Some of the speakers included school officials from major Texas university systems, including Texas Tech, University of Texas, Southern Methodist University, Texas State, Texas A&M, and Texas Southern University.

Holding this meeting at Texas State was fitting, as students and administrators had their own debate on free speech in November, when a student named Rudy Martinez penned a column that many deemed racist, but sparked conversation about his right to write it. Martinez, the University, and the newspaper editors all took heat for the incident.

“We’re here to disseminate knowledge, and that means we’re going to agree and disagree and analyze and tear things apart. So having our students understand the full protection of the First Amendment is very important,” Texas State president Denise Trauth told KXAN at Wednesday’s hearing. She said more students have become vocal about free speech and the protections of the First Amendment in recent years.

Martinez said he felt Trauth had an opportunity to address the column to lawmakers, which she did not do.

Texas Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, talks with Texas State University President Denise Trauth about free speech issues on college campuses at a Senate Committee on State Affairs hearing on Jan. 31, 2018. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

“Not just the column but also the white nationalist propaganda that’s been popping up on campus and that has not been approached,” Martinez told KXAN. “I just feel like these politicians, Denise Trauth, they’re basically just musing about free speech out loud and they wanted an audience.”

Out of the meeting, the State Affairs committee will come up with recommendations to policy changes that “protect First Amendment rights” while enhancing the “free speech environment on campus,” according to Lt. Gov. Patrick’s charge.

“I think we can all agree that we all want to make sure the First Amendment rights that we’re here to discuss are protected, for all of us,” Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said.

Austin’s Civil Rights co-chair for the Anti-Defamation League, Manuel Escobar, said the organization “greatly appreciates the willingness to highlight this important issue and we look forward to continued partnership and to fulfilling the promise of creating educational institutions that safeguard all viewpoints while ensuring that members of the community feel safe and feel welcome.”

Democratic state House candidate Erin Zwiener told the panel that Texas needs “to make sure we’re giving universities the tools they need to help students navigate this world” in situations “when hate speech falls into protected space.”

Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman said the topics brought up Wednesday can “get complicated quickly.”

“We are seeing far too many instances really around the country, where faculty, perhaps students, have moved to limit speech when they don’t like what the other people are saying,” she said.

“Sitting through the testimony you could tell where the issues are. Some folks are sensitive about certain things,” Huffman added. “I think it’s a matter of us keeping an open mind, talking about it, and try to make sure we protect everyone’s rights.”

Meanwhile, UT Austin student Breton Hawkins, active with Texas College Democrats, told lawmakers not to expect students to “sit idly by while their friends, their peers, or even themselves are derided for who they are.”

The irony about Wednesday’s meeting? Public testimony was limited to 2 minutes per person. However, Huffman made a point to be lenient.

“We didn’t really have a timer, and I just tried to keep it moving,” to allow more than 25 witnesses testify at the hearing.

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