Free Speech at Texas Tech?

by mcastellon on February 16, 2005

Officials at Texas Tech are revising policies in response to a federal court ruling that orders university administrators to revise the campus’ free speech policy:

Judge Sam Cummings of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas ruled in favor of plaintiff Jason Roberts in part, saying his personal First Amendment rights had not been violated but that the university’s policies requiring prior permission before one could speak on campus were unconstitutional.

In 2003 the university denied Roberts’ request to give a speech about the sinfulness of homosexuality outside the school’s designated free speech area, a 20-foot-wide gazebo that is located near the student union and holds 40 people. Free speech inside the gazebo did not require prior permission.

Texas Tech University’s speech code also banned “insults,” “ridicule” and “personal attacks,” and required students to obtain permission from the university’s grounds use committee six days in advance in order to speak on campus. The code was not well-defined, Cummings ruled. Additionally, when students were forced to obtain permission six days in advance of speaking, they could not respond to current events, he said.

Roberts is represented by The Legal Liberty Institute, a faith-based legal advocacy group, who is no stranger to litigating with Tech. In 2002, The LLI led the charge against Texas Tech for a policy published on professor of biology Michael Dini’s Web site. Dini’s policy read:

“If you set up an appointment to discuss the writing of a letter of recommendation, I will ask you: ‘How do you think the human species originated?’ If you cannot truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer to this question, then you should not seek my recommendation for admittance to further education in the biomedical sciences.”

The LLI claimed the content of Dini’s site was discriminatory towards students religious freedoms. The university contended that academic freedom allowed Dini to choose who he coud write letters for. To me, this issue almost bordered on a freedom of speech case for Dini, although I’m not sure where freedom of speech for a professor stating a policy and freedom of religion for students intersect. The Department of Justice later dropped the case against Dini after he revised the wording on his Web site.

Last year, I talked to the university’s General Counsel about the free speech areas on campus, and this was his response to having a policy that restricts when, where, and how students can engage in free expression on the Tech campus:

“Our defense is, we’ve provided sufficient free speech areas across campus,” said Tech General Counsel Pat Campbell. “We asked the plaintiff to make suggestions to us and his response was to open up the entire campus (to unrestricted speech). Right now, we’re waiting for the court’s consideration of our motion to dismiss.”

The idea of having a such a policy baffles me somewhat, and I’m not sure why a state university would have a different policy than any other public area. It should be interesting to see how Tech officials revise the policy’s language to comply to Cummings’ ruling. Similarly baffling is the relatively passive handling of this issue in the local media. A Google Search reveals quite a bit of information about this issue, and many media sources outside of Lubbock are more up in arms about this than the local outlets.

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