The scandal of “campus free speech” bills

The organized anti-academic right has claimed its first major legislative victory, with North Carolina’s bill, HB 527, naturally called the ACT TO RESTORE AND PRESERVE FREE SPEECH ON THE CAMPUSES OF THE CONSTITUENT INSTITUTIONS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA. The bill is based on the Goldwater Institute’s model bill, versions of which have been proposed in Michigan and Wisconsin, among other places. I wrote about the Michigan bill here. The fallout of the Charles Murray affair and Ann Coulter dustup has continued much longer than I expected.

One other common thread: Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, champion of the North Carolina bill, and Michigan Sen. Patrick Colbeck, sponsor of Michigan’s harsher measure, are thought to be running for governor in their respective states, and are grandstanding on this non-issue to burnish their right-wing bona-fides. These laws are thus fruit of the same unvarnished courage that powers Ann Coulter.

The North Carolina bill is a watered down version of the Goldwater bill, which calls for expulsions or suspensions of students who “infringe” upon the free speech rights of others.  The Carolina bill includes that artfully vague wording, barring conduct that “substantially disrupts the functioning of the constituent institution” or “substantially interferes with the protected free expression rights of others.” What “substantially,” “disrupts,” or “interferes” means will be left up to campus administrators and the kangaroo free speech courts these laws set up to regulate students’ speech rights.

The good news, sort of, is that the Carolina bill only calls for unstated “disciplinary measures,” rather than specific punishments. The bad news is that it will be left up to the whims of individual campus administrators to set these policies. Dependence upon the political courage of university administrators is never a happy place to be.

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