The first Louisiana Higher Education Free Expression Summit should remind Louisiana students and campus leaders of the rights and obligations linked to their freedom, and the freedom of others.
The University of Louisiana System will host a March 16 event at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette — registration is required — which ought to draw participation from public and private campuses around the state. There is no shortage of problems related to free speech on campuses in Louisiana, in recent years at LSU, Tulane and Loyola University New Orleans.
President Jim Henderson said of the nine UL System campuses he oversees, only one, McNeese State in Lake Charles, has a “green light” for freedom of expression from the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which concerns itself with campus rights.
But that’s the real test of our fundamental free expression rights: Will we afford others, even those who present ideas with which we vehemently disagree, opportunity to express themselves? It does not happen at every campus, not every time.
Henderson said he’s convinced that, speech codes and political correctness notwithstanding, the best way to meet the challenge of opposing ideas on campus is with more speech, not less. Don’t ban or restrict those with whom we disagree, don’t shout them down. Instead, Louisiana students should counter their thoughts and positions with better ones. That’s how we learn.
To that end, the UL System has developed its own thoughts and policies on free expression, and Henderson wants member institutions to develop similar policies that protect such rights on campuses. The policy says that the system “is fully committed to free speech among students, faculty, staff and visitors. To fulfill our primary role of discovering and disseminating knowledge, a free interchange of ideas is necessary.”
“We pride ourselves on being bastions of free expression and believe a culture of intense inquiry and informed argument generates lasting ideas,” he said. “This freedom comes with a responsibility to welcome and promote expression for all people, even in disagreement or opposition.”
Henderson is no stranger to the issue. He remembers as a student when robust debate was sometimes shunned or restricted on campuses in favor of pursuing greater civility. But speech codes can limit the robust exchange of ideas that lead to greater understanding. Campuses that favor advancing civility over truth may wind up reaping neither.
“Civility is a good goal,” Henderson said, but it should not be gained at the cost of fair, honest and robust debate. Campuses should be places where intellectual curiosity can be exercised and where unpopular ideas can be offered and debated.
“Free expression did not come from the Constitution,” he said. The framers recognized that the right to free expression pre-existed the Constitution’s creation in 1787, he said, and included it in the Bill of Rights in 1789.
Recent promotion of free expression rights on campuses was initiated in Louisiana in 2017; Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed the initial bill, deeming it unnecessary. Then-state Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, passed a bill to protect free expression on campus in 2019 and State Rep. Charles Owen, R-Rosepine, offered additional legislation the following year.
Although the bills were introduced by Republicans, Owen said, proponents from FIRE, a national organization created by conservative and liberal partners, have worked recently with the American Civil Liberties Union on these issues. Shared passion for promoting truth demands such collaboration and should appeal to people of good will.
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