Texas lawmaker proposes bill to protect college student speech

TEXAS -- A Texas lawmaker's bill aimed to protect student speech at Texas colleges reached the Higher Education Committee of the state's legislature last Thursday.

Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, proposed HB 4561 after a local college newspaper adviser came to his office with concerns over student speech policies at some Texas colleges.

"The school I work for, and some other schools, have policies that say the administration has to review all content [in student publications]," said Matthew Connolly, adviser to Austin Community College's student paper, the Accent. "I think it's ridiculous and unconstitutional. Nobody really enforces the policy here, but it's in the policy."

Connolly said he modeled his bill language on student free-press legislation in California, which explicitly prohibits prior restraint and other forms of censorship in college media. The Texas bill's language has since been modified, Connolly said, and now can be interpreted to refer only to off-campus student speech.

"An institution of higher education," HB 4561 reads, "may not subject a student to disciplinary action for conduct that, if engaged in by a person with no connection to the institution at a public location other than on the campus or other property of the institution, would be protected as free speech or expression by the Constitution of the United States or the Texas Constitution."

Connolly said that while he is appreciative of Naishtat taking up the bill, he is concerned that "all the on-campus and student media language has been scrubbed out of it."

According to Naishtat's legislative aide Megan Kempf said, the bill as it stands is intended to clarify college students' expression rights, mentioning recent complaints of some University of Texas at Austin students who were told they could not display political signage in their dorm windows.

"If it's speech that is protected under the First Amendment, we're asking that students not be punished for it," she said.

Kempf went on to say, though, that Naishtat's office "is still working with Texas universities to finalize the details of the bill to ensure the effective protection of student free speech."

That, Connolly said, could mean more revision before the bill moves past committee stages in the Texas legislature.

According to Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte, some revision might be exactly what HB 4561 needs.

"The wording of the bill right now is a bit confusing, and I fear that it will pose interpretation problems if enacted as-is unless the legislature expresses its intent very clearly," LoMonte said. "The way it is drafted, the bill could be read to say that, if a non-student has no free-speech right on campus, then a student has none either, so that -- if a non-student could not insist on having lawful editorial content printed in the campus newspaper -- neither could the editor-in-chief."

Should HB 4561 pass with the student media protections Connolly originally sought, Texas would join neighboring Arkansas and seven other states in providing college journalists with state-level protection that mirrors the high level of First Amendment protection the Supreme Court extended 40 years ago in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

Legislators in Washington, Connecticut and Kentucky also this year introduced student press protection legislation. The Kentucky bill -- HB 43 -- died last week in committee with the end of the 2009 regular session.

accent, Austin, Austin Community College, news, Texas