First state passes law on campus free speech

Tennessee just became the first state to pass a law that defines the rights of faculty members to speak out in the classroom.

The state's new law, which Republican Governor Bill Haslam signed just last week, also lays out regulations regarding free speech on college campuses. The law dictates that public colleges and universities in Tennessee:

  • Cannot attempt to keep away controversial speakers;
  • Cannot unnecessarily limit where students can protest; and
  • Cannot use broad definitions of harassment to stifle debate.

Under the new law, instructors in classrooms at these institutions are permitted to speak out in their classrooms "so long as they do not stray too far and too often from their class's subject matter."

The law comes at a particularly contentious time for higher education's relationship with free speech. In the past six months alone:

  • A "Professor Watchlist" emerged to "expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom"— in response to which over 1,700 academics signed a "Free Academics" letter;
  • Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced to the Conservative Political Action Conference that professors and deans tell students "what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think";
  • Violent protests led the University of California, Berkeley to cancel a speech by controversial Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos; and
  • Additional violent protests broke out at institutions in response to controversial speakers like Ann Coulter and Charles Murray.

The events have spurred conversations nationwide about the role federal, state, and university governments should play in monitoring freedom of speech on college campuses.

Many institutions have set forth their own policies and approaches to campus speech controversy, but Tennessee's law is the first to address it at a state-wide level.

According to Doug Overbey, a Republican state senator in Tennessee, the legislation is Tennessee's way of getting "ahead of the curve" on an issue that has caused tremendous clashes in other states—and would inevitably come to Tennessee soon.

How to keep protests from escalating to violence

Overbey says Tennessee lawmakers did not want to wait, since he believe doing so would mean public colleges would surely face tough decisions without much guidance.

In the academic sphere, the legislation has been met with both criticism and approval.

Josephine McQuail, the president of the Tennessee conference of the American Association of University Professors argues that the new law actually contains a threatening undercurrent and could end up discouraging professors from speaking freely.

"Does this mean that I am not allowed to talk about current events when I talk about William Blake?" McQuail hypothetically asks.

Other academics says they are relieved that the law has been established, since it prevents institutions from passing their own free speech policies, which might have been more restrictive.

Randy Byington, the president of the Association of Tennessee University Faculty Senates and an associate professor of allied health sciences at East Tennessee State University, says the law is a "plus," since many of the policies put forth at Tennessee public colleges themselves did not establish a clear definition of academic freedom.

Plus, Byington says, the law is "an affirmation from the legislature that academic freedom is important" (Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5/16).

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