We’ve written countless blog posts about free speech in higher education and on high school campuses, but a new troubling trend seems to be emerging nowadays: state laws designed to protect free speech that, due to their vaguely worded mandates, may actually silence and/or punish those expressing dissent and other forms of counter-speech.
Clearly this is not the intent of these pieces of legislation, but they nevertheless demonstrate the difficulty of navigating free speech laws and college policies while balancing individuals’ rights, regardless of their political beliefs or affiliations. Here are just some of the many examples of potentially problematic free speech protection laws that are either newly in effect or going into effect soon:
Alabama recently passed HB498, which effectively bans the existence of designated “free speech zones” on college campuses in the state. On the surface, this seems like a great victory for free speech advocates, but there’s a troubling flip side: the “disciplinary sanctions” that could be imposed against those who interrupt/disrupt someone else’s free speech are incredibly vague.
In other words, we have little idea of what the consequences would be if a counter-protester gets involved. Could they be sued? Kicked out of the college? Arrested? There are few clear consequences outlined in the bill, which could force the college administration, law enforcement officials and/or the state to prioritize one person’s freedom of expression over another’s.
Does the person who began speaking/protesting first get priority? What if they’re both shouting over each other, which arguably fits under this law’s definition of “substantially” disrupting another person’s free expression?
Until these questions are resolved, this law could pose a serious threat to counter-protesters’ First Amendment rights due to the sheer ambiguity of the law itself.
“Interfering” with Others’ Free Speech
In addition to Alabama, Texas recently passed SB18, which substantially increased protections for free speech rights on college campuses throughout the state of Texas. However, the bill poses the same problems as Alabama’s new bill: the consequences of “interfering” with someone else’s freedom of expression are not clearly outlined in the bill.
Specifically, the bill says there could be “disciplinary sanctions for students, student organizations, or faculty who unduly interfere with the expressive activities of others on campus.” While this sounds like a strong protection in favor of free speech, what exactly constitutes “unduly interferes”? Would a counter-protester be considered “unduly” interfering with the original protester’s free expression?
These are just two of the many examples of free speech controversies going on around the country’s college campuses nowadays, but they still serve as important reminders that even well intentioned legislation in favor of free speech can have damaging consequences.
Some of the most groundbreaking reports that have been investigated and published by journalists over the past several decades were only possible thanks to a free press concept known as “reporter’s privilege.” According to the First Amendment Encyclopedia, reporter’s privilege refers to the idea that journalists should not and cannot be compelled to reveal their anonymous sources or other confidential information in a court of law.
Although reporter’s privilege is not absolute — and the extent of its protections under the First Amendment remain somewhat murky after the 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes Supreme Court decision — many states have their own constitutional statutes for protecting reporters’ sources and confidential information obtained in the course of their standard reporting duties.
The concept of a shield law is related to reporter’s privilege because these are legal mechanisms that “shield” reporters against the threat of forcibly publishing or revealing their sources’ identities and other confidential matters. As of 2019, there remains no federal-level shield law protecting journalists, although 49 states and the District of Columbia have enacted their own versions of shield laws to ensure the free flow of information without legally compromising journalists who are simply doing their jobs.
In cases where shield laws did not apply or were not sufficient enough to protect the journalists, some reporters have invoked the 5th Amendment as a means for protecting their sources.
When Are Sources Not Protected?
Reporters’ sources may not be protected in instances where the shield laws are not clearly applicable, such as the recent case of an online journalist in Nevada, who a judge said must reveal his source because he was not previously a member of the Nevada Press Association (note: the Nevada state shield law does not explicitly specify that it only applies to NPA members).
In other cases, a journalist may feel ethically obligated to reveal her source or confidential information. It’s never an easy decision for reporters to withhold information about their interview subjects and other stakeholders involved in news stories, since transparency is another goal of every journalist. But this “privilege” is integral to ensuring a free press in the United States so perhaps it’s time for the federal government to enact its own shield law in line with the First Amendment’s guarantee to a free and independent press.
There has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding students’ political expression on public school campuses in recent years.
From the self-proclaimed, Trump-supporting teacher who said she was simply following orders when censoring a student’s “Make America Great Again” T-shirt in a school yearbook photo to the teen who complained against the school after his “MAGA” hat was blurred in his school yearbook, there are multiple debates happening around the country about what public schools should do about their students’ political expression – without risking a violation of their First Amendment freedoms of self-expression.
Unsurprisingly, these are just some of the many school dress code controversies we’ve seen in the news over the past several years, and it’s not isolated to the United States, either. France has had its own share of controversy over so-called “burqa bans” and Austria recently banned Muslim headscarfs in primary schools.
Whether it’s political attire, religious garb, or other contentious forms of students’ expression through fashion, should public schools be doing more or less to regulate what their pupils are wearing while on campus? Let’s examine both sides of the issue as it’s happening in the United States:
Arguments in Favor of Dress Code Bans
Dress code bans in the United States typically revolve around gendered fashion expressions, such as short shorts/skirts and visible bra straps for girls or sagging pants for boys. However, the upswing in political interest among minors has led to these dress code controversies involving political expression (most frequently involving Trump/MAGA, though this trend is unlikely to end when Trump leaves office, regardless of the next president’s political affiliation).
By banning political expression on public school grounds, educators and administrators (as public employees) risk violating students’ First Amendment rights. However, those in favor of these dress code prohibitions on political attire have argued that the existence of any kind of dress code could constitute a violation of a student’s freedom of expression and yet, multiple court cases have upheld the validity of school dress code regulations in other areas.
Additionally, those in favor of the bans argue that politicized attire can detract from learning and/or create a hostile learning environment for some students whose identities are inextricably linked with certain forms of political attire (e.g., Hispanic students or children of immigrants in class with another student wearing a “Build the Wall” t-shirt).
Arguments Against Dress Code Bans
Those who are against schools banning forms of political speech/expression frequently cite the Tinker v. Des Moines Supreme Court case, in which the Supreme Court sided with students who were suspended for wearing black armbands to protest the war in Vietnam. Upon reaching a decision the majority argued, “students don’t shed their constitutional rights at the school house gates.”
Thus, opponents of dress code bans believe there should be few (if any) restrictions on what students can and cannot wear to school when it comes to political attire. This debate will likely go on for many more years without a clear decision covering every case that comes up. But in the meantime: What do you think? Should students be able to wear whatever political clothing they want on public school campuses or should this form of self-expression be banned?
The number of headlines about the First Amendment — particularly about free speech issues — are seemingly endless nowadays, but what’s happening on college campuses, specifically, in 2019? Here are three major free speech issues to be aware of this year:
President Trump’s Comments on Free Speech in Higher Education
In a recent speech before the Conservative Political Action Committee, President Trump suggested he might sign an executive order to guarantee free speech protections on college and university campuses — and revoke funding for those institutions if they did not adequately protect every students’ freedoms, regardless of political affiliation.
An issue with this proposed order, a First Amendment rights lawyer explained, is that it could potentially allow the executive branch to unilaterally determine which campuses are pro or anti-free speech. In other words, this executive order could allow the president to pick and choose which colleges and universities should lose funding over free speech issues on their campuses, while others may fly under the radar if the president doesn’t deem their offenses serious enough to warrant a review and possible revocation of federal funds.
Pledge of Allegiance
In the past few years, there have been plenty of controversies surrounding the national anthem. In 2019, the Pledge of Allegiance is back in the news, after a California community college’s Board of Trustees removed the Pledge from its regular proceedings due to what the board’s president described as “reasons relating to its history and symbolism.”
The school was inundated with calls, mail and electronic messages allegedly threatening the Board and the school for its removal of the Pledge of Allegiance. In a late January Board of Trustees meeting, one of the members recited the pledge while holding a small American flag, only to be drowned out by vocal protesters. In another Board meeting just two weeks later, the Board voted to reinstate the Pledge of Allegiance for its regular meetings once again.
Limited Academic Freedom for Adjunct Faculty
A final (ongoing) issue affecting higher educational institutions in 2019 is the adjunct faculty crisis. Adjunct faculty members are paid less (with no benefits) and have substantially less job security than their tenured counterparts (adjuncts can teach multiple classes one semester then find out there are no available classes for them the following semester). Due to this lack of job security, adjuncts are constantly on edge about what they can and cannot say in the classroom, to colleagues, and/or in committee and departmental meetings.
This is arguably an implicit violation of adjunct instructors’ First Amendment rights, as nobody is outwardly telling them what they can and cannot say. Rather, they can be penalized for any unwelcome speech by not having their teaching contracts renewed for another semester. This means that job security is an essential issue for non-tenured faculty in 2019 because it is key to protecting their free speech rights in the classroom and on campus.
Everyone knows about freedom of speech, the press and religion in the First Amendment, but surveys have shown that a majority of Americans either don’t know or forget that the freedom to petition and to peacefully assemble are also included in the First Amendment. While “peaceful assembly” may refer to public congregations of individuals for any reason, public protests are most commonly associated with our freedom to assemble.
In an era of online petitions, digital boycotts of companies, and other forms of cyber-activism, are public protests still effective when it comes to changing social beliefs or political systems? As this opinion piece at Ideas.TED.com points out, there are plenty of ways to build a successful social movement, and you might be surprised to learn just how successful some protests are these days.
Increasing Public Awareness
Thanks to the Internet, we’ve come a long way from the 1960s and 1970s protests against the Vietnam War, which didn’t necessarily end the war but did transform public opinions about the war. Nowadays, we still see small-scale, local protests and large marches, but we’re also witnessing globalized movements on an unprecedented scale.
Take the March 15, 2019, global student strike for climate change: started by a 16-year-old Swedish girl, the student walkout encompassed more than 990 schools across 90+ countries, largely thanks to social media organizing. The purpose behind the strike was to generate greater public awareness (and concern) for climate change, which teenagers and young adults say will negatively impact them the most because they will be on Earth for decades longer than their parents and grandparents’ generations.
Organization, Messaging & Nonviolence
Research conducted by The Washington Post journalists found that successful protests typically share 3 traits: they’re well-organized, they have an appealing message, and they do not resort to violence.
On the issue of organization, it’s important that prominent organizers of a protest or movement share similar ideals and goals to avoid dividing their cause into separate factions. An example of this is the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline project in 2016. The protests were largely organized by social media-savvy young adults and their communities, which helped them centralize their platform and ultimately persuade the Army Corps of Engineers to deny a construction permit to the would-be pipeline builders (that decision was later reversed under the Trump Administration and lawsuits remain to this day).
On the issue of messaging, a protest’s message(s) should resonate with a wide range of people, beyond just those directly involved in the protest itself. An example of this would be the recent teacher strikes around the United States, which started over concerns related to low pay, overcrowded classes, few classroom resources, and limited support from administrators and districts. Since a majority of Americans attended public schools when they were younger and millions more want the same high-quality educational opportunities for their own children, the messages underlying the teachers’ strikes resonated with a massive audience.
On the issue of nonviolence, successful protests are able to maintain public support by encouraging participants to refrain from violence, verbal harassment, and other socially unacceptable forms of expression. An example of this would be the “lactivist” protests at Applebee’s in 2007, in which breastfeeding mothers protested against the restaurant’s discriminatory policies (making women breastfeed their infants in a restroom stall, when most states have already legalized public breastfeeding). This nonviolent display of protest ultimately led Applebee’s to issue a statement that it would be more welcoming of nursing mothers in the future.
Are Protests Really Effective?
Many protests start out strong then fizzle out due to a variety of intergroup or situational issues, but at the end of the day, it’s not always about whether protests are effective or ineffective. Instead, we should remember that peaceful protests are part of our Constitutionally-guaranteed First Amendment rights, and protecting those rights is something we should all agree on.