NH Public Universities Fight Against Free Speech for Students and Faculty

UNH fought against Free Speech legislation. Photo by UNH

On Saturday Political Buzz spoke with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) about free speech legislation in New Hampshire. FIRE testified in a hearing last Friday on House Bill 1431 (HB 1431) which is a bill relating to academic freedom and whistleblower protections for faculty members in New Hampshire’s public university system. Previous to that they had testified on House Bill 1561 (HB 1561) which is a bill to allow free speech on public university campuses in the Granite State.

In both hearings, public universities came out against each of the bills. Apparently free speech in public universities is an issue to the Administration. University of New Hampshire was the most vocal against each piece of legislation. Considering they are a public university funded with taxpayer dollars it seems they would be in favor of legislation that follows both the New Hampshire and United States Constitutions when it comes to the 1st Amendment.

According to FIRE, HB 1431 does a couple of important things:

If HB 1431 is passed, faculty members at New Hampshire’s public institutions of higher education will gain critical rights. The bill prevents administrators from punishing faculty members in retaliation for engaging in expression related to matters of public concern, whether those matters are about university policies or broader political issues of public concern.

HB 1431 prevents public college administrations from retaliating against faculty members for engaging in protected expression. The bill allows administrators to take action against faculty who use a substantial amount of classroom time to discuss topics that are not germane to the subject of the class broadly construed. This means that an administrators cannot punish a faculty member for merely expressing a political viewpoint in a class, but the institution can take action if that expression is unrelated to the class subject and takes up a substantial portion of class time.

There have indeed been cases where professors have been fired, demoted or overlooked from promotion for expressing their opinions on current events. HB 1431 not only protects faculty but it also gives the administration the ability to have recourse against professors who aren’t doing their job when it comes to classroom lectures. According to the general court website, the bill will next be in committee on March 3.

The “free speech on campus” bill is one that is far more disturbing. Currently on campuses like UNH and Keene State College students have to ask permission to express their free speech in the form of a protest and they are only allowed to do so in certain assigned placed called “free speech zones.” If other students discover the protest and would like to counter protest one of these permissioned events, they are unable to.

According to FIRE, the pushback from college administrators has been the following:

Administrators sometimes argue that allowing students to spontaneously express their views in open areas of campus (which the First Amendment requires in the case of public institutions and which private universities almost always promise) will increase their security costs, as police may be required to maintain order. But no public entity can hide behind security costs as an excuse to disregard First Amendment protections.”

According to FIRE’s research, 1 in 6 institutions in our database have so-called “free speech zones” — areas of campus to which free expression is quarantined. We have as yet seen evidence to suggest that security costs are higher or there are more instances of disruption in the colleges and universities that do not limit speech to a particular area. The idea that adult college students with different viewpoints need to be separated is not only patronizing but defeats the whole purpose of a university, which is to promote the free exchange of ideas.

It’s hard to believe that costs are really the issue considering some colleges and universities have indeed been sued for denying students their First Amendment Right to free speech.  These costs most certainly outweigh the costs of allowing students to freely speak on campus. According to FIRE “the costs of a lawsuit run into the tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of dollars.”

Colleges have been incessantly mocked recently for generating “safe spaces” and “free speech zones” because it appears they want to churn out students who cannot handle differing opinions. This is not a good preparation for the real world for students who are adults and expected to behave as such while in college and upon graduation.

Students shouldn’t have to get permission from the college or university in order to express their opinion on something happening around them in the world. Even if only one student wanted to stand in protest with a sign, they would have to seek permission from the college.

Unfortunately the House Education Committee has decided that rather than demand free speech on campus, they want to study it further to see if there really are increased costs associated with the change. It’s ironic that in the state of New Hampshire, Granite Staters can pop up in protest on any public area any time they wish yet students that are at public universities that get public funding are not allowed to do the same.

The bigger question for legislators may be to end public funding of any New Hampshire college or university system that does not enforce free speech. Both students and professors should be allowed to express their opinions on public campuses, even if others do not like their opinions. This is called the real world and this is what students should be taught. Students should not be taught that it’s okay for authorities to oppress their speech, especially in the “Live Free or Die” state.