Texas lawmaker proposes bill to protect college student speech

TEXAS — A Texas lawmaker’s bill aimed to protect studentspeech at Texas colleges reached the Higher Education Committee of thestate’s legislature last Thursday.

Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, proposed HB 4561 after a local collegenewspaper adviser came to his office with concerns over student speech policiesat some Texas colleges.

“The school I work for, and some other schools, have policies thatsay the administration has to review all content [in studentpublications],” said Matthew Connolly, adviser to Austin CommunityCollege’s student paper, the Accent. “I think it’sridiculous and unconstitutional. Nobody really enforces the policy here, butit’s in the policy.”

Connolly said he modeled his bill language on student free-presslegislation in California, which explicitly prohibits prior restraint and otherforms of censorship in college media. The Texas bill’s language has sincebeen modified, Connolly said, and now can be interpreted to refer only tooff-campus student speech.

“An institution of higher education,” HB 4561 reads, “maynot subject a student to disciplinary action for conduct that, if engaged in bya person with no connection to the institution at a public location other thanon the campus or other property of the institution, would be protected as freespeech or expression by the Constitution of the United States or the TexasConstitution.”

Connolly said that while he is appreciative of Naishtat taking up the bill,he is concerned that “all the on-campus and student media language hasbeen scrubbed out of it.”

According to Naishtat’s legislative aide Megan Kempf said, the billas it stands is intended to clarify college students’ expression rights,mentioning recent complaints of some University of Texas at Austin students whowere told they could not display political signage in their dorm windows.

“If it’s speech that is protected under the First Amendment,we’re asking that students not be punished for it,” she said.

Kempf went on to say, though, that Naishtat’s office “is stillworking with Texas universities to finalize the details of the bill to ensurethe effective protection of student free speech.”

That, Connolly said, could mean more revision before the bill moves pastcommittee stages in the Texas legislature.

According to Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte,some revision might be exactly what HB 4561 needs.

“The wording of the bill right now is a bit confusing, and I fearthat it will pose interpretation problems if enacted as-is unless thelegislature expresses its intent very clearly,” LoMonte said. “Theway it is drafted, the bill could be read to say that, if a non-student has nofree-speech right on campus, then a student has none either, so that — ifa non-student could not insist on having lawful editorial content printed in thecampus newspaper — neither could the editor-in-chief.”

Should HB 4561 pass with the student media protections Connolly originallysought, Texas would join neighboring Arkansas and seven other states inproviding college journalists with state-level protection that mirrors the highlevel of First Amendment protection the Supreme Court extended 40 years ago inTinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

Legislators in Washington, Connecticut and Kentucky also this yearintroduced student press protection legislation. The Kentucky bill — HB 43 — died last week in committee with the end of the 2009 regularsession.