Protecting Free Speech

By Dave LaRock (R-33)
As elected officials and members of the legislature, our most fundamental responsibility is to protect God-given constitutionally protected rights. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits the government, including governmental public colleges and universities, from infringing on free speech and the free exercise of religion. 

I’m thrilled to report The Virginia House of Delegates passed a measure I presented, House Resolution HR 431, the Campus Free Speech Resolution, which is designed to ensure free expression at Virginia’s public universities. This resolution advises public institutions of higher education to protect free speech, and it communicates the urgent need for the governing board of each public institution of higher education in the Commonwealth to develop and adopt a policy on free speech. Many already have adequate policies in place, but some do not.

On February 21, about a week before the end of the 2017 Session, I met with the head of the Capital Police and the folks from the Department of General Services, the people who manage the physical assets and facilities of the Commonwealth. We discussed policies which regulate use of the capital grounds, in particular those policies limiting outdoor meetings and protests which are forms of protected speech and expression.

The reason I asked these people to meet is this: The day before, I had walked over to the governor’s mansion because I had been informed people were planning to gather to peacefully protest the outdoor celebration of Governor McAuliffe vetoing a bill to redirect funding from Planned Parenthood to bona fide providers of women’s health services. I picked up a sign someone had left in my office that read “Planned Parenthood Lies” and headed over to the governor’s mansion. When I arrived, the Capital Police told me and others we could not display any signs outside the gated entrance of the governor’s residence.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” So if the legislature is going to exercise authority over publically-funded universities, and it should, we need to also make sure our own house is in order as well.

The Campus Free Speech Resolution passed by the House expresses that some state-funded universities are imposing unreasonable restrictions on free speech. What I also discovered this session is that the policies regulating the capital need to be revisited as well.

Virginia took a giant step forward in 2014 when a bill I co-patroned became law and effectively designated outdoor areas on the Commonwealth’s public college campuses as public forums, where student speech is subject only to reasonable content- and viewpoint-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions. Under the law passed in 2014, college students at Virginia’s public universities should not be limited to tiny free speech zones, or be subject to restrictive registration requirements.

There is more that needs to be done. Some policies are inadequate by virtue of their vague wording which could too easily be used to restrict protected expression. A policy banning “verbal abuse” or “hate speech” could be misapplied to prohibit protected speech. Hate Speech Codes are codes passed by colleges that restrict speech considered offensive to someone. These tend to be very broad and therefore unconstitutional.

Whether on college campuses or any public venue, free speech can be limited with reasonable time and place limits, but those limits must not be overly restrictive. Allowable limitations protect people, property, and allow normal activities to take place.

Virginia is the cradle of democracy, and we take seriously our responsibility to uphold free-speech principles. Each public institution of higher education and branch of government in the Commonwealth should ensure free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation of all ideas and viewpoints. By passing these measures, we are communicating to universities and the public that students are in school to learn how to think; they are not going to college to be protected from differing opinions. This resolution will put down a marker as a precursor for next session when I will follow up with legislation to assure free speech is taken seriously.?Speaking in support of the Campus Free Speech Resolution, Casey Mattox, director of the Alliance Defending Freedom Center for Academic Freedom said, “Today’s college students will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, teachers, and voters. This resolution reminds universities of their obligation to model the First Amendment values that they are supposed to be teaching the next generation.”

Delegate Dave LaRock represents the 33rd House District, including parts of Loudoun, Clarke and Frederick Counties, and the towns of Leesburg (partial), Purcellville, Berryville, Lovettsville, Round Hill, Hamilton and Hillsboro. LaRock serves on the Transportation Committee, the Science and Technology Committee and the Education Committee. Dave and his wife, Joanne, have lived in Loudoun for 30 years, building a successful family-owned general contracting business. The LaRocks reside near Hamilton with Laura, Abby, and John, the youngest of their seven children.