EDITORIAL: Learned behavior: Rights of free expression apply to youths, students

Workers prepare the grounds of the Texas State Capitol for Tuesday's Inauguration Ceremonies, in Austin, Texas, Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. (Eric Gay | The Associated Press)

Ideally, our nation’s institutions of learning have been held out at bastions of free expression, where people should be able to speak openly about their beliefs and opinions. Many things that are accepted as facts today — that the earth is round, or that it is not the center of the universe, for example — once were as controversial as global warming is today.

Our schools are precisely the places where new ideas should be presented, debated and tested. In practice, however, the ideal of free expression on campus has been harder to maintain. Groups holding rallies for one cause have been shut down by people with opposing views. Faculty and administrators have been sanctioned and even fired after making controversial statements. Speaking engagements have been canceled when opposition has arisen to the speakers’ presence on campus.

Such events have raised questions about whether today’s schools are true places of learning and discovery of new ideas, or merely places for the indoctrination of currently accepted opinions.

The Texas Legislature is in session, and some lawmakers want to protect free expression at our schools. We hope their efforts are successful.

One proposal, House Bill 1373, seeks to protect student speech at colleges and universities by requiring that they adopt official policies that encourage the open exchange of ideas, regardless of their popularity and declare and maintain official policies of neutrality with regard to free speech, prohibits punishment of any student for any expression or idea that is protected by the First Amendment and prohibits any university official from rescinding the invitation of any speaker who had been invited by any other valid campus official or group.

Sanctions against people who state certain political or social views are seldom justified, regardless of whether those views are liberal or conservative, pro- or anti-government.

We would expect that the same protections of free expression be extended to all student publications. College newspapers at times have been pressured to kill controversial articles and commentary, including investigations of campus officials or departments. That pressure has ranged from specific orders to drop the coverage, or threatened loss of student service fees or other support for the publications.

Senate Bill 514 and its companion, House Bill 2244, would extend similar protections to student publications at public schools. The bill would require school boards to adopt written policies regarding students’ rights to exercise freedom of the press, and those policies can’t be more restrictive for publications subsidized by the schools than for any that might be funded independently.

The learning process stops when people aren’t allowed, or even encouraged, to consider new ideas and be open to rethinking old views.

We hope the majority of our lawmakers appreciate this fact, and support bills that protect the free exchange of information and ideas at our institutions of education.