VIRGINIA GENERAL ASSEMBLY TO TAKE ON FREE SPEECH BILLOp-Ed

By John T. Hill

As the General Assembly session gets underway, committees and sub-committees will begin to sift through over one-thousand pieces of legislation that have been offered up for consideration. “What’s important?”, “What will help Virginians?”, and “What will score me political points?” are probably the questions running through the heads of Virginia legislators. It’s not often they get to address national hot topic issues like free speech, but, this year, Virginia will get a chance to tackle the issue and set a national precedent on the topic of free speech at public universities.

HB 258, patroned by Del. Scott Lingamfelter, reads:

“Public institutions of higher education shall not impose restrictions on the time, place, and manner of student speech that (i) occurs in the outdoor areas of the institution’s campus and (ii) is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution unless the restrictions (a) are reasonable, (b) are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, (c) are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and (d) leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.

Outrage spread across the internet last year when a story surfaced about a college student who was told he couldn’t hand out copies of the Constitution on Constitution day at Modesto Junior College in California. Robert Van Tuinen was blocked from handing out those copies because he wasn’t in a designated “free speech zone” and college policies required that he get permission in advance. Virginia certainly isn’t immune to the same kind of controversy and embarrassment.

Free speech is one of the most fundamental rights in America, specifically outlined in the first amendment of the Constitution. Public universities should be promoting free speech, free thought, and the discussion of ideas. For institutions of higher education, restricting free speech would be counter-intuitive to the reason of their existence. States don’t get an exemption from the Constitution, and public colleges shouldn’t get a free pass either when it comes to free speech.

Eleven of Virginia’s public institutions currently receive a “red light” or “yellow light” rating on their speech codes from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, meaning that the institution has some sort of policy restricting freedom of speech. Some of Virginia’s schools even have “free speech zone” policies. Virginia is certainly susceptible to the same kind of issues with its public institutions of higher education as we saw with California and their extreme, embarrassing restriction of speech directed at Robert Van Tuinen who just wanted to hand out copies of the Constitution. HB 258 would clarify and confirm that it’s unacceptable for the administrations of Virginia’s public institutions of higher education to impede on the right these adult students have to free speech.

The success of this bill rides on the thought process of the legislators down in Richmond:

“What’s important?” Free speech is typically seen as an important issue in American society.

“What will help Virginians?” Protecting free speech at public colleges would benefit Virginians in more than one way. It’ll directly help college students who are at the mercy of their school’s administration when it comes to their freedom of speech right. HB 258 will also benefit all Virginians, because they’ll exist in a society where free speech is paramount and protected at all costs. We can only lose our 1st Amendment right to free speech if we lose our vigilance.

“What will score me political points?” Supporting any kind of legislation that supports the Constitution and personal rights should score points among constituents. Leaders who help push this bill through will also gain positive attention from the college student electoral demographic. Voting against this bill could easily be spun truthfully as “voting against free speech”; even Terry McAuliffe ought to get behind this one.

HB 258 should reap bipartisan support and hopefully make it to the State Senate and then the Governor’s desk. Virginia can tell its public institutions here and now not to embarrass the state with a controversy like in California. This General Assembly can set a national precedent by standing up for and strengthening freedom of speech through HB 258. It might not be the perfect, all-in-one solution, like the 1st Amendment, but it sure does send a clear message to colleges.

The Commonwealth of Virginia, where the Bill of Rights was born, should take a stand this year with the Constitution of the United States.

John T. Hill is the host of Take it to the Hill, a political talk show on WGMU. He writes regularly at JTHmishmash.com, which is his personal blog. Find John on Twitter: @JTHmishmash.