Live from Music Row, Wednesday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed attorney Cece O’Leary of Southeastern Legal Foundation and its director of 1A (First Amendment) violations to the newsmaker line to detail the trend of colleges and universities limiting freedom of speech for conservative students.
Leahy: We are joined on our newsmaker line right now by Cece O’Leary with the Southeastern Legal Foundation. Good morning, Cece.
O’Leary: Good morning, how are you?
Leahy: We’re delighted to have you on. Tell us about the First Amendment violations going on at college campuses.
O’Leary: Yeah, so, colleges used to be a marketplace of ideas. Where students are supposed to engage in open discourse and challenge their own beliefs, challenge the beliefs of others, all in this pursuit of truth.
But I think we can all agree that that really hasn’t been the case for several years now. Colleges are doing everything in their power to silence students, especially conservative and libertarian students, and they’re doing this in a number of ways.
One way that they do this is through bias reporting systems, where they encourage students to report their classmates anytime their classmate makes them feel offended, and then campus administrators will take those reports and launch investigations, and even punish students who have done the offending.
And then the other way that universities try to silence students is by creating so much red tape on campus through their policies that students are effectively prevented from being able to get out there and speak.
There are so many limits on the amount of reservations that they can make a semester, or what their posters can and cannot say, that they are pretty much silenced. In response to all of this, Southeastern Legal Foundation sent letters to 12 colleges across the country where we are demanding that they change these unconstitutional policies and uphold their duty to protect the Constitution and protect students’ freedom of speech.
Leahy: We’re talking with Cece O’Leary with the Southeastern Legal Foundation, really one of the very best public-interest law firms in the country. Cece, I’m looking at the list of the 12 universities that you’ve sent these letters to.
University of Maine, Clemson, LSU, Illinois State, University of South Carolina, Southern Utah, Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Miami University, Iowa State, and Bowling Green. These are not what you would call elite Ivy League institutions in this instance.
O’Leary: Exactly. This happens everywhere. It happens at the Ivy League that we hear about in the news. It happens at your local colleges, and junior colleges. We have a junior college on the list. It happens at your state schools. It is happening everywhere. Attacks on freedom of speech are coming from all sides these days.
Leahy: What’s the recommended remedy, Cece, in this case?
O’Leary: In these letters, we kind of tailor the remedy to each policy. But for the most part, we demand that each college either revise the policy, if it can be salvaged, if there’s something to be revised, or we ask them to remove the policy altogether.
So when it comes to bias reporting systems and bias response teams, generally, we demand that the colleges get rid of the policy altogether, because there’s nothing salvageable about it.
Leahy: You sent this letter out yesterday. Have you heard back from any of these colleges yet?
O’Leary: We’ve received confirmation from a couple, and we expect to hear from a few more. Generally, what happens is that they take the time to review the letter, and then they’ll respond, and hopefully we expect to see some changes coming from them in the next couple of weeks.
Leahy: But of these 12 institutions, the institutions of higher education have so much ossified wokeness in them, it seems to me unlikely that many, if any, of these institutions will change their policies. Do you have any reason to hope that they actually will change their policies?
O’Leary: Absolutely. Often colleges don’t even know that they’re violating the Constitution, which might sound surprising. But when we’ve sent demand letters like these in the past, and sometimes colleges will just say, wow, I had no idea that this actually violated the First Amendment.
So I’ll give an example. There are a couple of schools that put limits on how often students can table a semester. So they say you can only make eight reservations a semester. Maybe that seems reasonable to them.
What they don’t realize is that the First Amendment demands that students have plenty of opportunities to speak and plenty of alternative ways if tabling isn’t available.
Leahy: What exactly do you mean by tabling?
O’Leary: Tabling is when, it’s a really common form of engaging in speech on college campuses where you set up literally a table. A folding table. And you put maybe a sign on your table as a student organization and you have a stack of flyers on the table.
And it’s a great way to get your speech across. Because you have the large sign that people see. You have flyers that you can hand out. And it makes it a little bit more civil because people can approach you, come up to you, and engage in discussions with you.
And so it’s a really preferred way of engaging in speech on campuses that conservative and libertarian groups like to use.
Leahy: Back in the prehistoric era, when I was a freshman in college, I recall that when you registered that very first week, you would have all sorts of organizations at tables, and they’d have information and give them out to you.
And my recollection, now this is going back to the 1970s, there was no limitation on the ability of any organization to have a table out there and give out information. Has that changed dramatically?
O’Leary: Yes, it really has. We hear from students all the time who say, I want to be able to get out there and table, and there are tabling fees. I have to pay money to be able to do it.
Or there are limits on how many reservations I can make, or I have to get approval weeks in advance before I can get out there and speak. And so that’s what the purpose of these letters is for.
Leahy: My recollection is like, if I wanted to do that, and I can’t think of times when I did, but I saw organizations all the time just out handing out literature. I don’t think they had any permits. They just did it.
O’Leary: Yes, exactly. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case right now, because colleges have been shutting speech down, deterring students from getting out there and speaking because of all this red tape that they’ve put in place.
Leahy: Isn’t it a great irony that the free speech movement, which began on a college campus at UC Berkeley in the early 1960s, now at college campuses is exactly the opposite?
It’s the speech suppression movement, put together by the administrators that run these publicly, these public institutions of higher education.
O’Leary: Yes, it is ironic, to say the least. And I’ll just add that it’s not just coming from administrators right now. There are students who are trying to silence other students.
They use these bias reporting forms to report – whether it’s a well-intended report, or sometimes we see false reports – in an effort to silence views that they just don’t like. So we are trying to put a stop to that, both from administrators and from students.
Listen to today’s show highlights, including this interview:
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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Cece O’Leary” by Southeastern Legal Foundation.