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What We’re Reading: June 2021

Our readings this month feature multiple state laws that are being contested in court. In Montana, the public university board of regents as well as another coalition are suing over what they see as legislative overreach in university governance. And in Georgia, a speaker invited to a public campus is suing over a law that requires her not to boycott Israel. Meanwhile, the University of Virginia joins the ranks of universities that have adopted free expression statements.

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Campus Happenings

Facing public pressure, Rutgers Law Student Bar Association rescinds critical race theory requirement
Press Release | Foundation for Individual Rights in Education | May 24, 2021

After concerns were raised about viewpoint discrimination, the student bar association at Rutgers Law School-Camden repealed a 2020 amendment to its constitution to mandate that “any group hoping to receive more than $250 in university funding must ‘plan at least one (1) event that addresses their chosen topics through the lens of Critical Race Theory, diversity and inclusion, or cultural competency.’”

Lawsuit Cites Campus Speech Rule at University of Alabama
Associated Press | May 26, 2021

“A conservative Christian group has filed suit against the University of Alabama, challenging rules that require students to obtain a permit to speak on campus days in advance. Filed by the campus chapter of Alliance Defending Freedom and two student members in state court on Friday, the civil lawsuit claims the rule violates a state law which requires public college and universities to respect students’ rights to free speech.”

Oklahoma Community College Cancels Course on Race and Ethnicity Due to New Law
First Amendment Watch | June 1, 2021

“A community college in Oklahoma canceled a summer course on race and ethnicity due to concerns that the course’s syllabus might conflict with a new law that prohibits public schools from advancing certain topics in classroom. … The law prohibits public schools from ‘requiring students to engage’ with [concepts including that] an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive…[and] an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” The college has since restored the course to the summer schedule but added additional courses to ensure other options are available to fulfill degree requirements.

Amid Pressure, Stanford Lifts Hold on Law Student’s Graduation Diploma
Cameron Ehsan and Tammer Bagdasarian | The Stanford Daily | June 3, 2021

“After public backlash, [Stanford University] lifted a hold that it had placed on a third-year law student’s graduation diploma over a satirical email he had sent to his peers mocking the Stanford branch of the Federalist Society” with a fake event titled “The Originalist Case for Inciting Insurrection.” Law Professor Michael McConnell is quoted, “I hope this incident will inspire universities to take a hard look at both the procedures and the substance of their policies about student speech, to ensure that the threat of retribution does not chill free expression—whether left or right.”

Statement of the Committee on Free Expression and Free Inquiry
Press Release | University of Virginia | June 7, 2021

“The University of Virginia unequivocally affirms its commitment to free expression and free inquiry. All views, beliefs, and perspectives deserve to be articulated and heard free from interference. This commitment underpins every part of the University’s mission… At the same time, the University has not always fulfilled its aspirations, exploiting enslaved laborers and excluding Black Americans, women, and groups and viewpoints disfavored by the majority… But freedom of speech is among the most powerful tools by which wrongs are righted and institutions are improved or abolished.”

State and Federal Policies

Gov. Reynolds Signs Changes to Free Speech Policies at Iowa Public Schools, Universities & Community Colleges
Trevor Oates | KWWL News | May 20, 2021

Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-IA) signed into law House File 744, which “prohibits faculty and staff from violating students’ First Amendment rights and allows for employees to be disciplined, including possible termination, if violations do occur. On top of that, Iowa’s community colleges and regent universities… would be required to conduct annual free speech training for students, faculty and staff, which elected officials would be allowed to attend. Language that would have prohibited officials at the three regent universities from making public statements on political policy matters unless made in collaboration with the Board of Regents was removed from the bill.” See an interview about the bill with the chair of the state House Education Committee, Dustin Hite, here.

Lawsuits Filed to Overturn “Unconstitutional” Bills Affecting Montana Universities
Mike Dennison | Missoula Current | May 24, 2021

“A broad coalition of labor groups and Montana university students, faculty and former officials filed suit Thursday to overturn four new laws.” The bills, signed into law this spring, include bans on transgender athletes from playing on college sports teams and on certain campus voter registration efforts and create new free speech and anti-harassment policies. The board of regents also filed suit over a new law which prohibits the board from banning firearms on campus. “The coalition lawsuit said it’s not taking aim at specific policies in the bills, but rather seeks to ‘vindicate the (Board of) Regents’ authority’ to run the state university system, free from legislative dictates.” A spokesperson for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen said that the lawsuit “is an attempt by the group and its allies to succeed in court where they failed at the ballot box last November.”

Want Your Honorarium? Sign an Anti-BDS Pledge First
Elizabeth Redden | Inside Higher Ed | May 26, 2021

“Abby Martin, a journalist and filmmaker, sued Georgia Southern University after she was prevented from speaking at a conference there unless she agreed to refrain from boycotting Israel.” The clause in her contract was “pursuant to a 2016 Georgia law… that prohibits the state from entering into contracts valued at $1,000 or more with individuals or companies absent such an antiboycott certification.” A U.S. district court has ruled that Martin’s legal action can proceed because the Georgia law unconstitutionally constrains speech.

Op-eds and Thought Pieces

A Culture of Free Speech Protects Everyone
Conor Friedersdorf | The Atlantic | May 21, 2021

“Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who led The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, was named the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Faculty at its Hussman School of Journalism and Media recommended her for tenure too. But the university’s board of trustees didn’t approve the faculty recommendation. Instead, UNC appointed her to a five-year contract with the option of a tenure review. … Plenty of circumstantial evidence suggests that Hannah-Jones is a victim of impermissible viewpoint discrimination. An unnamed trustee at the university told NC Policy Watch that ‘the political environment made granting Hannah-Jones tenure difficult, if not impossible.’ … This matter has proved divisive in part because some observers believe that Hannah-Jones’s appointment was motivated by viewpoint discrimination in favor of the 1619 Project, notwithstanding questions about its journalistic quality.”

A “Hostile Takeover”?
Elizabeth Redden | Inside Higher Ed | May 25, 2021

The Southwest Baptist University board of trustees made changes to its governance documents, making the Missouri Baptist Convention its sole corporate member and revising “the range of acceptable religious beliefs for professors and administrators. … The changes in governance documents, coupled with the promotion and tenure decisions, have raised questions about the relationship between SBU and the MBC and implications for faculty and for academic freedom. … The Higher Learning Commission made an off-cycle, ‘focused visit’ to SBU earlier this month to examine issues of governance at the university.”

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