Texas Legislature 2019

Texas House passes Senate bill seeking to ensure free speech on college campuses

Senate Bill 18 would require universities to create disciplinary sanctions for students who interfere with free speech activities. It would still allow universities to put restrictions on the time, place and manner of such activities.

State Troopers in riot gear pushed protesters away from the building where white nationalist Richard Spencer was speaking at Texas A&M in 2016.
State Troopers in riot gear pushed protesters away from the building where white nationalist Richard Spencer was speaking at Texas A&M in 2016.  Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.

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The Texas House tentatively approved a bill Friday evening that would require public colleges and universities across the state to come up with more uniform policies on free speech.

Senate Bill 18, authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, would require universities to allow any person to engage in free speech activities on campus, create disciplinary sanctions for students who interfere with the free speech activities of others and establish a process for addressing complaints of potential free speech violations. It would still allow universities to put restrictions on the time, place and manner of free speech activities.

The bill was labeled a top priority by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and it passed unanimously out of the Senate in late March. It passed the lower chamber Friday on a 86-58 vote after three amendments by state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, were added onto the measure.

One of the amendments would prohibit university officials or employees from disinviting a speaker who was approved by the university to speak on campus and was invited by a university-affiliated individual or group. Another would require universities to create a committee to submit to lawmakers annual reports that analyze free speech policies and events.

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(Update: On May 20, bill author Huffman indicated she did not agree with the amended legislation and asked that a conference committee be appointed to iron out differences between the chambers’ two versions.)

Much of the criticism of campus free speech policies comes as events in recent years have some worried that conservative voices are being silenced on college campuses.

In 2017, for example, Texas A&M University was threatened with a lawsuit after it canceled a rally with white nationalist Richard Spencer. Later that year, Texas Southern University came under fire from lawmakers after it halted a speech by Cain when protesters disrupted it.

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Such events sparked a provision in SB 18 that would prohibit universities from considering “any anticipated controversy related to the event” when approving guest speakers on campus.

SB 18 would also require universities to establish all common outdoor areas as traditional public forums and allow anyone to exercise free speech there, as long as their activities are lawful and don’t disrupt the normal functions of the campus. It would be a big change for some universities — like the University of Texas System campuses — which are currently designated as limited public forums, meaning only campus-affiliated individuals can practice free speech activities there.

The bill still needs another stamp approval of from the lower chamber before it heads back to the Senate, where members there can either accept changes to the measure or send it to a conference committee so differences can get hashed out behind the scenes. If the Senate concurs with the House's changes to the bill, it will head to Gov. Greg Abbott for a signature. It that happens, universities have until Aug. 1, 2020 to establish the required free speech policy.

Cassandra Pollock contributed to this story.

Disclosure: Texas A&M and the University of Texas System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.