Lone Star Trustee Speaks out about Free Speech on Campus
September 11, 2013
by Susan Kruth
Ron Trowbridge, Lone Star College (Texas) trustee, Senior Fellow at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and former chief of staff to Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, wrote for SeeThruEdu on Sunday to reiterate his remarks at a recent Lone Star College System Board meeting on why freedom of speech is so important, particularly at colleges and universities.
In his piece, Trowbridge shared excerpts from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty:
If any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.
Though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.
Trowbridge, also a former professor at Lone Star College, went on to note that these principles play an important role when universities are criticized, writing: “Most of us do not like to hear criticism, especially when it is directed against us or against Lone Star College. But that criticism can be constructive.”
On that note, despite its legal obligation to uphold the First Amendment, Lone Star College has had its share of struggles with free expression in the past. FIRE named its prohibition on any “vulgar expression” our December 2008 Speech Code of the Month, and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression granted the college its “Jefferson Muzzle” award in 2009 for retaliating against students who distributed a flippant list of “Top Ten Gun Safety Tips.”
Lone Star is a public university system, and the Lone Star College System student handbook for the 2011–12 academic year promises unequivocal First Amendment protection:
Students retain their First Amendment rights at all college sponsored events, LSCS locations, and off-campus registered student organization events. Student expression as protected by the First Amendment cannot be prohibited unless, in the view of the administration, the expression will interfere with the operation of the school or the rights of others.
But its “Student and Welfare Rights” policies contain a section on “Limitations on Expression,” some of which contradict this promise:
LSCS may subject student expression to prior screening under clear and reasonable regulations. LSCS may refuse to disseminate or sponsor student speech that:
c. is considered obscene, vulgar, offensively lewd, or indecent under applicable law;
d. might reasonably be perceived as advocating drug or alcohol use, irresponsible sex, or conduct otherwise inconsistent with the shared values of the System;
e. is inappropriate for the level of maturity of the readers ...
While obscenity has a legal definition, set forth by the Supreme Court in Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973), it is unclear what speech would qualify as “vulgar,” “offensively lewd,” or “indecent” enough to be prohibited. Further, advocacy of “irresponsible sex”—a completely legal choice for adult students—is plainly protected by the First Amendment. Finally, the policy raises the question of what material is “inappropriate” for the “level of maturity” of readers who are overwhelmingly adults. As FIRE has pointed out repeatedly, such vaguely defined speech codes do not pass constitutional muster.
While it appears that the college system has taken positive steps over the past few years, it must not maintain policies that limit students’ ability to distribute constitutionally protected materials. Even offensive ideas should not be “compelled to silence”—as the Supreme Court stated in Terminello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949), free speech “may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”
FIRE commends Trowbridge for his advocacy against restrictions of free expression. We hope other trustees—and other college community members—are inspired to join his fight for free speech on college campuses.