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FREE SPEECH ON CAMPUS (batteries not included)


Robert Jensen

The

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.

Sadly,

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.

The

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.

When

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.

Wednesday

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.

I

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.

I

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)?

More  unresponsiveness.

After

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.

As

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

speech act.

Back

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.

On

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.

On

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.

The

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.

The

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.

No

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.

Robert

Jensen is a professor in the Department of Journalism at the  University

of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at [email protected]

 

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