Briscoe Cain, a freshman legislator in the Texas House of Representatives, has long been concerned about the lack of free speech – usually conservative speech – allowed on college campuses.
While attending the South Texas College of Law, Cain attempted to organize a debate with some controversial speakers, including one who had written a book about the New Black Panther movement. He told Watchdog that the school prohibited the event.
Since then, the Deer Park Republican has watched as schools across the country shut down conservative viewpoints or require groups that invite speakers to pay additional money for security — essentially taxing those groups because their opponents might cause a ruckus.
“While that may sound nice, it treats some speech differently,” Cain said. “It’s de facto censorship.”
Now Cain, along with state Rep. Matt Shaheen, has introduced a bill that would protect students’ rights to engage in activity protected by the First Amendment, including “assemblies, protests, speeches, the distribution of written material, the carrying of signs, and the circulation of petitions,” so long as the activity is lawful and doesn’t “materially and substantially disrupt the functioning of the institution.”
The measure would allow colleges and universities to “enforce reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of expressive activities on the common outdoor areas of the institution’s campus,” so long as those restrictions “serve a significant institutional interest,” contain “content-neutral and viewpoint-neutral criteria,” allow students “alternative means of expression” and allow students and faculty to spontaneously assemble or hand out material without a permit or prior approval from the university.
Students who feel their free speech rights were violated would be able to file a lawsuit against their school within one year of the violation. The bill states that each day a policy violates this law would constitute a separate violation.
For Cain, giving students an avenue to redress their grievances was important.
Currently the only way for students who believe their constitutional rights were violated to challenge a school’s decision is to file what’s known as a federal 1983 lawsuit. Cain’s bill would allow students to file a complaint in state court, making it easier and cheaper to file a claim.
“Essentially, when the government violates its citizen’s civil liberties, it should not be so hard to hold your government accountable,” Cain said.
State Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, has introduced a bill that would prohibit “any institution, official or employee from disinviting a speaker who has been requested to speak at the institution by members of the university community.”
Campus disinvitations reached a record high of 42 in 2016; most of the speakers who lost their gigs were right-leaning.
Cain said he plans to offer amendments to his own bill during House debate, including provisions from Buckingham’s bill.