AAUP calls campus free speech bills a 'right-wing' conspiracy

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is urging its thousands of members to challenge campus free speech legislation, which it calls “problematic” and “unnecessary.” 

The AAUP—by far the largest membership group of college professors in the United States, with more than 500 campus chapters—takes aim at the ongoing trend in its new campaign against “unnecessary ‘free-speech’ legislation,” which is part of a larger “One Faculty, One Resistance” effort through which the AAUP hopes to rally opposition to conservative initiatives in higher education.

While bills to support free speech vary by state, the AAUP worries that common features include forbidding the cancellation of controversial speakers and requiring schools to educate students on First Amendment rights during orientation.

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Framing free speech legislation as a “right-wing” conspiracy, the AAUP also complains that such bills often establish mandatory minimum penalties for students who are repeatedly found guilty of infringing on others’ free speech, as well as allowing students to sue if their First Amendment rights have been trampled. 

“Campus free-speech legislation is one piece of a much larger well-funded, right-wing effort to disempower public higher education in the United States,” the AAUP tells members in a primer on the subject

The campaign also encourages professors to call their state legislators, providing a template script calling the campus free speech initiative a “solution in search of a problem” that ultimately “distracts from critical campus issues of health, safety, and equity.” 

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The campaign was announced by AAUP Political Organizer Monica Owens in a recent Facebook Live video. While Owens doesn’t exactly express any qualms with free speech itself, she does warn that free speech is a “conservative” effort. 

“So, why are these bills so problematic?” Owens asks, answering that there are “provisions in these bills that require minimum penalties for the impingement of other’s free speech.” 

For students who shout down speakers or otherwise prevent them from talking, the new legislation is “problematic because it could have really devastating effects,” Owens warns, noting that students could be suspended or expelled for such behavior.

Reached by Campus Reform, Joe Cohn of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) praised the AAUP for being one of FIRE’s most valued allies, but did express some concerns about the AAUP’s recent anti-free speech efforts. 

“While FIRE disagrees with portions of the AAUP’s conclusions regarding the merits of campus free speech legislation, we share some of the general concerns that the AAUP has raised [about the legislation],” Cohn said. “Like the AAUP, we have seen legislatures repeatedly threaten the funding of institutions in attempts to coerce them to censor students or controversial ideas on campus. We’ve seen bills that would forbid the teaching of certain points of view or that would impose political litmus tests on hirings.”

Cohn also expressed worry that some free speech bills haven’t been carefully crafted, citing for instance, a Louisiana bill that has “conflicting standards,” as well as a recent Arizona free speech bill that may actually give schools the ability to restrict student speech. 

“We have opposed these legislative initiatives and will continue to do so,” he said, but clarified that the existence of problematic provisions in certain bills does not negate the importance of free speech protections in general.

[RELATED: Harassment of conservative student prompts free speech bill]

Cohn hypothesized that because of concerns over these problems, the AAUP has concluded that all free speech bills do more harm than good, and thus should be opposed. 

“We instead view these concerns as all the more reason why we all need to be fully engaged to ensure that the legislation accomplishes important goals,” Cohn explained.

“We are proud of the bills we supported in states like Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia. On their way to becoming law, each of those bills received broad bipartisan support,” he noted. “FIRE strongly believes both students and faculty would benefit if similar, carefully crafted measures were passed across the country.”

The AAUP declined an interview requested by Campus Reform.

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