Calls for Censorship in Texas

By February 21, 2005

The Denton, Texas, Record-Chronicle carried a story on Saturday (registration required) about an uproar over a free-expression issue at the University of North Texas. Apparently, the university chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) at UNT held a “Capture an Illegal Immigrant” event to draw attention to what they see as the problem of illegal immigration in Texas (you can read about it in the UNT student paper or read a bunch of articles about it at the UNT YCT website).

Basically, YCT had a few students around campus put on orange shirts with the words “Illegal Immigrant” on the front and “Catch me if u can” on the back. Students were encouraged to “catch” one of the YCT students around campus and take him or her back to YCT’s table, where they would receive a 100 Grand candy bar and be engaged in a discussion of President Bush’s immigration proposals, which YCT opposed.

Sensitive it wasn’t, but such an event certainly falls well within the bounds of constitutionally protected speech—which UNT, as a state university, is bound to respect. According to the Record-Chronicle article, UNT Chancellor Lee Jackson defended the YCT’s right to free speech and refused to punish the group, saying, “Although their [the Young Conservatives of Texas’] methods were offensive to many—on campus and throughout the state—there is no known basis in law or policy to censure or restrict those who exercised their right to speak on a current issue.”

Chancellor Jackson is to be commended for refusing to knuckle under to demands for censorship of this very controversial speech. Another part of this article caught my attention, however:

Emma Guzman Ramon, president of Denton’s LULAC [a Latino advocacy group] chapter, said she appreciated Jackson’s statement, though it could have come sooner and been more powerful.

“I think whenever an incident like this happens, UNT should have spoken up a lot earlier and said they don’t condone the message,” she said.

She said her group wants the university to preview content to be presented in the free-speech zones.

“There should have to be some kind of a review before it goes to a free-speech area because they’re [UNT] using that as a crutch,” she said.

But Dean of Students Ken Ballom, whose office gives permits for the free-speech zones, has repeatedly said the university does not approve or deny permits based on the content of the demonstration. UNT only ensures that the demonstration is not physically harmful to the university community, he has said.

This is a pretty revealing passage. First, readers learn that UNT evidently has “free speech zones,” which FIRE has fought against and beaten on campuses such as West Virginia University and the nearby Texas Tech. “Free speech zones” sequester free speech, which should permeate a university campus, to one corner of campus and are often unconstitutional on a state university campus. Second, Ms. Ramon’s comments illustrate how for many people in academia, even the segregation of “free speech” from the rest of campus is unacceptable—speech must everywhere be subject to the whim of censors (unless, of course, the censors would block one’s preferred viewpoints). The idea here is that a free speech zone, the establishment of which in itself carries the implication that the rest of the university is an unfree speech zone, is a “crutch” that allows the university to avoid some responsibility to censor speech. This is anathema to any rational understanding of the meaning of freedom of speech.

People in academia, especially those such as Ms. Ramon who claim to represent ethnic minorities, need to remember that the traditional and usual victim of censorship is the minority group. Without the First Amendment, those who advocate for minority issues would find themselves limited indeed.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, “I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.” The power that Ms. Ramon would call on to silence YCT is the very same power of which Dr. King warns us. If you call on the censor to come to your aid, you had better hope that the censor always agrees with you.

Schools: West Virginia University University of North Texas Texas Tech University