As Texas Senate Bill 18 went into effect after the 86th Texas Legislature, free speech on college campuses may go through changes.
The bill, which went into effect on Sept. 1, requires public institutions of higher education to ensure that enrolled students can take part in free an uninhibited debate and deliberations on and off campus, according to the LegiScan website. These institutions also have to recognize freedom of speech as a fundamental right.
Matt Gregory, Dean of Students in the Tech Office of the Dean of Students, said technically Tech does not have a free speech area.
“Prior to the Senate bill being passed in this past legislative session, we had five or six designated speech areas that were considered areas for expressed activities where a speaker or student could go to those areas and speak and profess whatever they wanted to,” he said. “With the passing of the expressive activities bill, all of these areas are gone.”
An expressive activities policy calls for any outdoor common space on the main campus to be a speech zone, Gregory said. There are no longer restrictions on whether someone is able to participate in free speech and the free exchange of debate and ideas outside of the free speech area.
“If they were outside of the free speech areas, they were not allowed to setup and start talking or speaking," he said. "We would have to relocate them to the free speech area. Now, there are some limitations and restrictions called time, place and manner restrictions that govern the outdoor speech area. One example would be amplified devices to amplify a voice. It has to be handheld and quieter than 80 decibels.”
Now, the free speech area is considered common ground like everywhere else on campus, Gregory said.
“The new law makes it to where, as an institution, it doesn’t matter anymore about where the person expresses their freedom of speech as long as it doesn’t block an entrance or egress or interferes with public safety, or the activity interferes with someone else’s ability to express their free speech,” Gregory said.
Currently, protests can happen in common outdoor areas, not just the free speech area, Gregory said. No open flames and no signs bigger than three by three feet are allowed, and protests cannot block walkways or streets or cause a safety concern where people can be injured
There is a national organization that focuses on freedom of speech on campuses, that says, “fight speech with speech,” Gregory said. If there is a speech that offends a student, one can speak out against that speech and use his or her own voice for empowerment.
“When I have students who come in and say that there was someone on campus who was saying stuff that I don’t believe in," he said. "I always encourage them, one, you don’t have to listen to it, two, let us know about it just in case there is a health or safety concern with it, three. you can use your voice and the voice of fellow students to speak out against their speech. Fight speech with speech."
David Ibukunoluwa, a sophomore mechanical engineering student from Lagos, Nigeria, said he has never used the free speech area for a speech or event. He said he knew there was a designated free speech area but did not know it was different from areas outside of the campus free speech area.
“I think it will be problematic that the whole campus will be opened up because the free speech area has a designated spot, and things can be organized,” Ibukunoluwa said. “If they are allowed everywhere on campus without clear validation, then that might cause unnecessary stress on the students actively trying to avoid them.”