Free speech on campus (batteries not included)

By Robert Jensen

Published in Common Dreams · February, 2001

[This article was published on Common Dreams, February 24, 2001.]

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 soundand 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.