AUSTIN, Texas -- Legislation aimed at firming up free speech rights on public college and university campuses has been approved by the Texas House, but not before a series of largely party-line amendments, with Republicans controlling the outcome, to insert some provisions that weren't in the version approved by the Senate.
The measure now returns to the upper chamber, where some of the amendments are expected to spark opposition. A House-Senate conference committee might have to be appointed to iron out differences.
Senate Bill 18, in both its Senate version and the House iteration that passed Friday night, would allow any person, including those unaffiliated with a school or sponsored by a student or employee group, to engage in so-called expressive activities -- such as speaking, demonstrating and distributing literature -- in outdoor common areas, subject to reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of the activities. Texas A&M University already meets that standard, but the University of Texas requires unaffiliated people to be invited by a student or employee group.
The measure passed the upper chamber March 20 with the support of all Democrats and Republicans. By comparison, House Bill 2100, which dealt with the same topic, was approved by the lower chamber April 30 on an 85-58 vote that fell largely along party lines, with many Democrats objecting that it goes too far, including by meddling with schools' student conduct codes.
HB 2100 has not advanced in the Senate, leaving SB 18 as the one in play, with some provisions from the House bill added to it.
The speech issue comes at a time when some conservatives contend that their voices in particular have been stifled at campuses in Texas and across the nation. For example, Texas Southern University in Houston halted a speech by Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, in October 2017 after student protesters showed up and officials said the event had not been booked and therefore lacked essential staffing, security and audiovisual equipment.
Cain is the author of the now-defunct House bill, which differed from SB 18 in several respects, and it was Cain who successfully offered amendments to retool the Senate bill, which was authored by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston.
Provisions added by the House at Cain's request would bar schools from "disinviting" a speaker after approving a speaker who had been invited by a student organization or faculty member; require schools to strive for an official position of neutrality on matters of public concern; and compel governing boards to create a "committee on free expression." A student who unduly interferes with the expressive activities of others would, after the second offense, have to be suspended for at least one semester or else the school would have to explain to the committee why it did not impose that sanction.
The Senate's approach leaves it up to schools to develop sanctions for students who interfere with expressive activities.
The two chambers agree that schools should be barred from taking action against a student group on the basis of a political, religious, philosophical, ideological or academic viewpoint. They also agree that schools should produce reports on implementation of free speech rules, although the Senate version would leave that up to school administrators while the House wants that done by the governing board's committee on free expression.
Leaders of several groups -- including the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Environment Texas, the Texas Eagle Forum and the Texas Press Association -- signed a joint letter to members of the House urging that various provisions be incorporated into SB 18, including the prohibition on withdrawing invitations to speakers who have already been invited and a requirement to suspend second offenders or explain why they weren't suspended.
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