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Battling to Protect Campus Free Speech: A Conversation with Arizona Talks

College students across the country are preparing to go back to campus, a place where they can explore their passions and debate ideas. Unfortunately, the rise of free speech zones and speech codes means that many college campuses are insulating students from speaking freely and hearing different arguments—so having an open discussion of how to protect campus free speech is more important than ever.

This past Tuesday, the Goldwater Institute co-hosted a free speech event at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law with Arizona Talks, which promotes discussion about a variety of topics and seeks to break the partisan divide. The expert panel, which included Goldwater Executive Vice President Christina Sandefur and Senior Fellow Jim Manley, discussed the importance of free speech in society and on college campuses. The event was moderated by Ladd Gustafson, a third-year law student at ASU and former Goldwater law clerk.

Goldwater Institute experts Christina Sandefur and Jim Manley discuss the state of free speech on college campuses at Tuesday’s Arizona Talks panel event. (Source: Arizona Talks Facebook page.)

Before discussing the speech struggles of students on college campuses, free speech needed to be defined. Many people only see it as their right to share opinions and talk openly; however, as Sandefur explained, there’s more to the First Amendment than meets the eye: “Free speech is one of the most cherished rights protected by our Constitution. When we talk about free speech, we often think about our ability to speak or express ourselves, but it also means our ability to associate with people or groups that share our values. It can also mean the right not to speak; the right to be silent.”

Despite the importance of the First Amendment, college campuses are seemingly turning their backs on free speech. Another panelist, Arizona attorney Ruben Reyes, told the audience about his struggles as an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Reyes mounted a legal challenge to his school’s unconstitutional speech code: UTEP had a policy that required students to get permits for speeches and deliver them in “free speech areas.” Reyes sued the university and won, claiming that the free speech areas violated his First Amendment rights. Reyes now owns his own legal practice and said that he fights for our constitutional rights because he wants his daughters to enjoy the freedoms that he does.

Sandefur shared her concerns about the state of free speech on campuses, saying, “College should be the place where free speech thrives; where debate and discussion are paramount. Unfortunately, we’ve had a rise of this ‘progressive’ notion of free speech that it is a permission given to us by the government; that it is to only be protected insofar as it is good for society. That’s a very, very dangerous notion.”

“Colleges should be places where students learn to handle difficult topics in civil debate,” Manley added. “After all, everyone will face challenging ideas and conflict once they graduate and move into the next stage of their lives. A university’s best gift to its graduates will be to prepare them for this.”

The establishment of speech zones and codes have restricted students’ ability to engage in meaningful dialogue on college campuses. In response, the Goldwater Institute drafted model legislation called the Campus Free Speech Act. Not only does it affirm the importance of free expression, but it also allows for lawful protests—or counter-protests—to be held as long as someone else’s right to free expression is not blocked. That draws a clear line between civil debate and violence, encouraging the former and making clear that the latter will be rejected. Several states are considering or have passed actual legislation inspired by the Goldwater model.

Prior to the event, Sandefur joined Carlos Alfaro on an Arizona Talks podcast, where the two discussed the current state of national politics, the definition of free speech, and what limits there are to the First Amendment. If you were unable to attend the event, you can listen to the podcast here.

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