Texas governor Greg Abbott signs sweeping guarantee of campus free speech

Telling his video audience, "I shouldn't have to do it" — because the First Amendment already guarantees free speech — the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, signed a bill guaranteeing free speech on campuses in Texas.  

The text of the law, TX S.B. 18, can be read here.

You can watch Governor Abbott's statement and signing in a tweet he issued:

In a sign that the law was needed, Newsweek snarked:

Many legal experts and education officials across the country say such "free speech" laws are inane given that public universities are already bound by the U.S. Constitution to allow free speech and assembly on campuses.

The Texas Tribune, however, noted that this law will bring changes to Texas campuses:

SB 18 would impact UT-Austin by requiring universities to establish all common outdoor areas of campus as traditional public forums and allow any person to exercise their free speech rights there, as long as their activities are lawful and don’t disrupt the normal activities of the institution.

UT-Austin — just like all UT System campuses — is currently designated as a limited public forum. Outside individuals or organizations cannot distribute literature on campus, which is why [Beto O’Rourke’s campaign was prevented from handing out flyers. And outside speakers must be invited by a UT-Austin registered student, faculty or staff organization and receive advance permission from the university, according the rules.

Campus Reform has a rundown of other changes the bill brings:

Among other major changes, the bill forces schools to only use content-neutral standards when deciding to approve a speaker requested by a student organization and makes it unlawful to deny a student organization registered status due to political, religious, and ideological viewpoints.

The bill could force many Texas public institutions to make changes to their free speech policies, as only one public college or university in Texas has a "green light" distinction by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Higher Education, which measures how each school's policy lines up with the First Amendment.

According to the Texas Tribune, the colleges and universities now have until August 1, 2020, to institute these changes.

The new law comes a short time after the Texas State University student government attempted to remove Turning Point USA from campus, which drew criticism from Gov. Greg Abbott and Land Commissioner George P. Bush.

"The Texas Senate just passed a bill mandating free speech on college campuses (including conservative speech). I look forward to signing it into law. But it’s crazy we have to pass a law to uphold the First Amendment," tweeted Gov. Abbott in response to the incident. (snip)

Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education  (FIRE) said that while there were some aspects which could have been improved, the legislation addresses censorship on college campuses.

"It prohibits schools from using free speech zones according to speech. And, and that's important. And it also deals with speakers fees, and security fees, requiring that they only be assessed on content and viewpoint neutral basis," Cohn said. "So those two steps, in particular, are going to be helpful in reducing censorship on campus."

It's a shame that this bill is necessary, but clearly, it is required.

Image credit: Twitter video screen grab.

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