KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
There's a pattern we're seeing on campuses around the country. A provocative speaker's invited, often by a conservative student group. Other students oppose the speaker. Maybe they protest. The speech happens. The speaker's heckled. Sometimes there's violence.
MCEVERS: In other cases, as with conservative commentator Ann Coulter at UC Berkeley last week, the event gets called off. Now a handful of states have introduced legislation to prevent this sort of thing. The bills differ from state to state, but they're all based on a model that was written by the Goldwater Institute. That's a libertarian think tank in Arizona. Attorney Jim Manley co-wrote the model legislation and he is with us now. Welcome.
JIM MANLEY: Thanks for having me.
MCEVERS: So this model bill would, among other things, require public universities to remain neutral on political issues, prevent them from disinviting speakers and impose penalties for students and others who interfere with these speakers. Explain why you think those elements are important.
MANLEY: Well, we'll start with the institutional neutrality provision. It's just there to remind the university that it's funded by taxpayers. And taxpayers shouldn't be forced to subsidize speech that they disagree with. Now, as far as the discipline provisions, we think those are incredibly important because what we've seen is that universities haven't really taken this seriously and disciplined students who engage in these sorts of belligerent protests that are designed not to present an alternative viewpoint but to shut down the speaker.
MCEVERS: Now, I was reading the bill, and it seems like the bedrock here is that it's important to maintain freedom of speech. But what about those students who don't like these speakers, who do want to protest and yell and possibly disrupt? Does it not curtail their rights?
MANLEY: Yeah, our goal with this bill was to protect free speech on campus broadly, so both invited speakers and students who want to protest those speakers. That's why we have strong due process protections in place, so that our discipline provisions are only targeting those activities that are designed to prevent a conversation. You know, if I started yelling every time you asked a question, that wouldn't be a very good way to have a conversation. And that's basically what's happening with these shout-downs and violent protests on campus. And those are the sorts of things that our bill goes after and tries to prevent.
MCEVERS: North Carolina is one of the states that's considering a campus free speech bill. A Democratic lawmaker there who is opposed to the bill sees it as an unnecessary regulation of an existing constitutional right. She said, young people come to college to learn about free speech, and they do that best through experience, not through a set of rules. What do you think about that?
MANLEY: Well, one of the provisions of our bill requires during freshman orientation to have a discussion about the importance of free expression. And so I think that fits directly with what the legislator's talking about there. You know, the legislature has a duty to protect constitutional rights. That's why we have governments. And this is exactly what legislators should be doing. They should be protecting constitutional rights.
Even if the university is doing a fine job today, that doesn't mean that there's no role for the legislature to play here. And if the university is truly committed to protecting free expression, then it should be a collaborative exercise between the legislature and the university to create a piece of legislation that works for everybody.
MCEVERS: What do you say to critics who say that this kind of legislation could hinder a university's ability to prevent hate speech on campus?
MANLEY: Well, I think it probably would. But that is a category of speech that isn't really well-defined in the law. And as Howard Dean recently discovered, the Constitution does protect so-called hate speech. The point of having free speech protected in the Constitution is to protect unpopular ideas. We don't need the First Amendment for ideas that everybody agrees with. We need to protect minority views even if those views are repugnant to most people and maybe especially if those views are repugnant.
MCEVERS: Jim Manley is a senior attorney with the Goldwater Institute. Thank you very much.
MANLEY: Thanks for having me. It's been a pleasure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.