Washington state lawmaker pitches ‘Academic Bill of Rights’
Says state colleges are stomping on First Amendment
PULLMAN, Wash. — A Washington state lawmaker has introduced legislation titled the “Academic Bill of Rights” to mitigate what he called an “Orwellian and McCarthyistic” chilling of free speech on college campuses.
Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, told the House Higher Education Committee on Wednesday that his bill would reaffirm the First Amendment rights of college students and employees. He repeatedly invoked George Orwell, the British author of the dystopian novel “1984,” and Joseph McCarthy, the U.S. senator who infamously targeted the speech rights of Communist sympathizers during the early 1950s.
“I have been watching the encroaching McCarthyism on college campuses over the last two decades, and it’s really been accelerating over the last few years,” said Manweller, who is also a political science professor at Central Washington University.
Manweller said the bill was inspired by a number of recent events, including race-oriented protests at Yale and the University of Missouri, and attempts by several Washington State University instructors to punish students who use words like “man,” “woman” and “illegal alien” in the classroom. It’s also an attempt to stop colleges from “coddling” and “shielding” students from information they may find offensive, he said.
The bill addresses five First Amendment-related issues. Perhaps the most notable goal: eliminating so-called “free speech zones” on the state’s college campuses.
On most pieces of public property, people are free to express views of any kind so long as the time, place and manner of their demonstrations don’t interfere with government interests, such as national security. But at WSU, it’s illegal to hold a demonstration anywhere other than sidewalks along public streets and the Glenn Terrell Mall, the open space in the center of the Pullman campus.
What’s more, an individual or group planning a demonstration there must notify the university at least two weeks in advance, including names, addresses, phone numbers, the purpose of the demonstration, and the estimated number of people expected to participate. The law also places time limits on those demonstrations.
“That doesn’t really allow for spontaneity,” said Elizabeth Blanks Hindman, a WSU professor who teaches First Amendment law to journalism students. Such policies prevent students and faculty from responding to recent events with impromptu demonstrations, she said.
Manweller said the free speech zones are unnecessary, at the very least, because case law already precludes demonstrators from occupying classrooms and lecture halls — spaces designated for spreading specific messages at specific times. His bill would loosen the universities’ restrictions to allow people to “spontaneously and contemporaneously assemble” in outdoor areas.
Administrators at WSU and Eastern Washington University, which has a nearly identical policy, generally say the restrictions are intended to promote safety and avoid disrupting the educational process. They say complaints about the system are handled on a case-by-case basis, and exceptions are made often.
Kim Anderson, a lawyer in WSU’s Office for Equal Opportunity, said in a prepared statement: “WSU employs narrowly-tailored, content-neutral, time, place, and manner limits that are consistent with Federal and Washington State constitutional requirements as articulated in case law. These requirements are intended to ensure the university meets its educational responsibilities while supporting speech, assembly, or expression rights.”
Manweller is not persuaded.
“Restrictions of people’s speech rights always come under the guise of safety,” he said. “McCarthy came in and said, ‘We have to keep the people safe by shutting up the Communists.’”
The bill also addresses “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions,” terms that have drawn both ire and popularity in recent years. It would prohibit universities from punishing faculty for failing to warn students about “content that might trigger a difficult emotional response.” It also would ban punishment for microaggressions, defined as “brief verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities” — offhand actions and remarks that may offend people, intentionally or unintentionally.
“For instance, if the university said, ‘We need to hire the best person for the job,’ that could be considered a microagression because it could be construed as speaking against affirmative action,” he said. “And the way things are right now, you could be fired for that.”
Manweller admitted the microaggressions section is flawed, however, because it conflicts with broader harassment laws. As written, the bill would allow for deliberate racist, sexist and otherwise offensive comments, so long as they are made in passing.
Lastly, the bill includes a policy designed to protect whistleblowers and another designed to ensure due process for students at risk of being expelled.
Thirteen Republicans have signed on to the bill. At the hearing Wednesday, members of the Washington Student Association testified in favor of the section eliminating free speech zones. They were less supportive of the other sections.
Hindman, the WSU professor, said the aggressive policy changes could open up discourse and allow many suppressed ideas to be heard on campus.
“The free speech stuff, I think, is terrific,” she said. “Do I think it’s going to pass? Probably not.”