Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education made the University of New Orleans the dubious recipient of its “Speech Code of the Month” for February. The organization, which assists individuals in exercising First Amendment rights at colleges, faulted UNO for a level of restrictiveness that could make Valentine’s Day-related messages run afoul of its speech strictures. In reality, FIRE notes, it legally can’t ban these kinds of messages without other extenuating circumstances, leading to an unwarranted chilling of expression.
FIRE also observes that Louisiana public institutions collectively fare more poorly than those in most states in protecting First Amendment rights. It rates universities on egregiousness of unconstitutional restriction, and almost all the state’s senior institutions have at least one policy related to this issue that it determines blatantly violates the Constitution.
Fortunately, recent progress came in one area, courtesy of a law passed last year that Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards couldn’t veto. Act 666 mandates that higher education management boards produce policies that it spells out that which don’t infringe on the rights of free expression and association of students and faculty members. Institutions must report annually on these policies and on any complaints registered about restrictive activities on their parts.
In 2017, Edwards vetoed a similar bill, although that one, HB 269 by Republican state Rep. Lance Harris, gave broader parameters for schools to follow couched in more philosophical terms, and also addressed a complaint procedure. In his veto message, Edwards claimed the bill was “unnecessary and overly burdensome” as he said institutions already adequately protected free expression, yet a year later he signed a bill even more specific in what policies institutions had to have – a tacit admission that schools had fallen short on this account.
His explanation served as a poor veneer for his true motives, as in reality Edwards vetoed that bill to curry favor among university administrators who wanted to keep expansive powers and as a jab at Harris, leader of the House of Representatives Republicans. Faced with a bill doing much the same from another lawmaker, as well as some unfavorable publicity when the University of Louisiana Monroe threatened discipline for students over private speech, he signed next year’s version (which the Board of Regents fought bitterly in committee).
Dutifully, all four systems – Louisiana State University, University of Louisiana, Southern University, and Louisiana Community and Technical College – produced policies designed to adhere to the requirements laid out in Act 666. But it didn’t cover the problem area UNO encountered, which focused on overly broad construal of harassment.
The new policies are a great start, but clearly need expansion into related areas. Hopefully, systems will clean up this problem on their own. If not, legislators may have to give them another forceful nudge.