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LA higher education freedom of speech bill needed

Perhaps HB 269 by state Rep. Lance Harris would not have precluded the immature behavior witnessed recently at Bethune-Cookman University, but it certainly would provide a valuable backstop that enables more effectively delivers higher education in Louisiana.

The bill mandates that Louisiana higher education leaders devise standards and procedures that protect academic freedom, both inside and outside of the classroom in regards to university-sponsored events and spaces. It seeks to prevent protests against speech from impending the presentation of learning experiences.

While Louisiana public institutions of higher education largely have been free of such disruptions – just last year, Louisiana State University Baton Rouge handled well an event where some elements wished to block presentation of certain views – the incident in Florida reminds of the possible negative consequences if a school has not prepared to defend free speech. That involved the commencement speech by Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to graduates of the historically black university.

The invitation particularly was appropriate. The university came about through the merging of two separate schools, one for each gender, with an emphasis on educating black youths in an era where few higher educational opportunities existed. “Bethune” refers to Mary McLeod Bethune, one of the most prominent black educators of the pre-Civil Rights era, known for her administrative abilities of schools that promoted academic rigor and religious faith.

Unfortunately, DeVos, who has championed school choice tirelessly and led advocacy efforts to increase its presence in American education, in remarks prior to her address inexpertly framed the emergence of Bethune-Cookman as World War II approached as an example of “school choice.” It may have been, but only because virtually every university in the south, officially or unofficially, prohibited blacks from attending at that time.

This and her support of school choice caused consternation among some students. That those about to graduate from a historically black university should object to choice policies carry a large amount of rich irony: like Louisiana, Florida serves as a leader in school choice, which has disproportionately benefitted black families. For example, in Louisiana most students, mostly black, through school choice efforts DeVos actively backed, who took advantage of choice opportunities improved their educational situations. If nothing else, the clear benefits of school choice for minorities merited her appearance at this institution.

At the commencement, some foolishly but not disruptive to others’ enjoyment of DeVos’ remarks turned away from her. Regrettably, others loudly booed that would have ruined the experience for everybody. Admirably, when that began the platform party comprised of university and higher education leaders stood in solidarity with DeVos – not necessarily in what she was saying, but in her right to be heard. Shortly thereafter, the university president further affirmed that right by interceding to tell the miscreants that, in essence, the ceremony would be canceled unless decorum prevailed. Not surprisingly, decorum then prevailed.

Harris’ bill probably would have addressed the disruptive elements’ behavior. Among others things, it states that “Protests and demonstrations that infringe upon the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity shall not be permitted and shall be subject to sanction.”

The courageous commitment that Bethune-Cookman leaders displayed towards free expression does credit to their belief in purpose of higher education, but other campuses have witnessed leaders acting in absolutely craven ways that disserve their mission as educators. Because it hasn’t happened here yet doesn’t mean it won’t, making a bill such as Harris’ necessary.

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