University of Texas’ commitment to free speech on campus — which has been
a curiously lethargic commitment given the centrality of such freedom to
higher education — has gotten curiouser lately.
I think this little story from the largest university in the United States
tells us a lot about the state of American campuses. On the heels of the
use of force by university police to stop a professor speaking with a
bullhorn at a pro-choice rally, the police on my campus now seem to have
unilaterally criminalized mere possession of a bullhorn (even if it
doesn’t have batteries in it) by threatening to arrest me.
story began on Tuesday when more than 200 pro-choice demonstrators rallied
in front of a 20-foot anti-abortion display with huge pictures of bloody
fetuses, which has dominated the plaza in front of Gregory Gym all week.
While some people thought the display should come down, many of us
defended the speech rights of the anti-abortion group and wanted to
counter it with the classic "more speech" response.
protesters began to speak with a bullhorn, they were told by UT officials
that amplified sound would not be allowed in that area. After English
Prof. Mia Carter defied the rule and spoke to the crowd, police rushed
her, roughly pushing down students who were trying to protect her, ripping
the bullhorn out of her hands, and injuring her.
the protesters were back. When I approached the rally area with a
bullhorn, police immediately informed me of the ban on amplified sound and
told me to take the bullhorn out of the rally area or leave it with police
until the rally was over. I asked what would happen if I held onto the
bullhorn, which at that moment didn’t even have batteries in it. Police
said I would be arrested and charged with criminal trespassing.
then asked the police to cite the university regulation or criminal
statute that allowed them to demand that I surrender the bullhorn. They
were, as lawyers say, unresponsive.
tried to explain to the officers that threats of arrest usually come with
explanation of the law one is accused of violating. Again, I asked, what
law criminalizes carrying a bullhorn (and a battery-less one at that)?
repeating the question several times, the officers finally told me that
the order came from the president’s office and that it was time for me to
choose whether to stay or go.
the crowd chanted "free speech now," I left the area, with
police dutifully following me to make sure I didn’t dash back to the rally
area with my unauthorized amplification system to commit an unauthorized
at the rally, people talked about the importance of expanding free-speech
rights on campus. One student described having pamphlets illegally
confiscated on campus during Parents’ Weekend this fall, and another
recounted the administration’s public lies to denigrate and derail
students’ plans to protest Henry Kissinger’s lecture last year.
Thursday, pro-choice and free-speech supporters returned for the final day
of rallies at the anti-abortion installation. Instead of bullhorns, this
time we came with cheerleader-style cardboard megaphones to
un-electronically amplify our voices. Apparently the police decided this
violated no law, policy, or dictate from the president’s office; no one
was assaulted or threatened with arrest for this low-tech approach.
that final day, students questioned why a huge display funded by an
off-campus group (albeit with a student front group formed to legitimize
the display under university rules) was given so much space. Several
students crossed over the metal barricades of the anti-abortion group to
assert students’ objection to the special treatment given to the display.
The anti-abortion group leaders demanded that police arrest the students
for trespassing, but this time university officials wisely backed off.
university’s rules give administrators the right to deny students
permission to hold demonstrations or use amplified sound "if the
space requested is unavailable, inadequate, or inappropriate to
accommodate the proposed use at the time requested." While everyone
acknowledges that some limits on amplified sound are necessary to make
sure classes function without disruption, many on campus think the rules
— and the administration’s application of them — are arbitrary and
unnecessarily restrictive. Indeed, given the geography of the Gregory Gym
area, it’s difficult to imagine how a bullhorn could disrupt classes in
the surrounding buildings any more than in the university’s designated
"rally areas" when amplification is allowed.
best sign that a university is doing its job is a campus that is alive
with speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that a real democracy
requires speech that is "uninhibited, robust, and wide-open." So
does a real university.
matter how much it might scare administrators who are conscious of the
opinions of wealthy donors and conservative legislators, a loud campus is
an intellectually healthy campus.
Jensen is a professor in the Department of Journalism at the University
of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at [email protected]