Texas House passes Senate bill seeking to ensure "free speech" on college campuses

Texas Tribune News

State Troopers in riot gear push protesters away from the building where white nationalist Richard Spencer was speaking at Texas A&M in College Station in 2016
State Troopers in riot gear push protesters away from the building where white nationalist Richard Spencer was speaking at Texas A&M in College Station in 2016
Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

The Texas House tentatively approved a bill Friday evening that would require public colleges and universities across the state to come up with more uniform policies on free speech.

Senate Bill 18, authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, would require universities to allow any person to engage in free speech activities on campus, create disciplinary sanctions for students who interfere with the free speech activities of others, and establish a process for addressing complaints of potential free speech violations. It would still allow universities to put restrictions on the time, place and manner of free speech activities.

The bill was labeled a top priority by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and passed unanimously out of the Senate in late March. It passed the lower chamber on Friday along a 86-58 vote, after three amendments by state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, were added onto the measure.

Much of the criticism of campus free speech policies comes as events in recent years have some worried that conservative voices are being silenced on college campuses.

In 2017, for example, Texas A&M University was threatened with a lawsuit after it canceled a rally with white nationalist Richard Spencer. Later that same year, Texas Southern University came under fire from lawmakers after it halted a speech by Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, when protesters disrupted it.

Such events sparked a provision in SB 18 that would prohibit universities from considering “any anticipated controversy related to the event” when approving guest speakers on campus.

SB 18 would also require universities to establish all common outdoor areas as traditional public forums and allow anyone to exercise free speech there, as long as their activities are lawful and don’t disrupt the normal functions of the campus. It would be a big change for some universities — like UT System campuses — which are currently designated as limited public forums, meaning only campus-affiliated individuals can practice free speech activities there.

The bill still needs another stamp approval of from the lower chamber before it heads back to the Senate, where members there can either accept changes to the measure or send it to a conference committee so differences can get hashed out behind the scenes. If the Senate concurs with the House’s changes to the bill, it will head to to Gov. Greg Abbott for a signature. It that happens, universities have until Aug. 1, 2020 to establish the required free speech policy.

Cassandra Pollock contributed to this story.