The president of a state university here in Houston stormed into a classroom where a conservative state lawmaker was attempting to give a speech Monday and shut the event down.
Now Gov. Greg Abbott needs to shut him down.
No sensible person approves of this wave of anti-conservative censorship sweeping across campuses, but there’s often little that decent folks can do about it, short of filing lawsuits, as it’s usually taking place on especially leftist campuses. In Texas, though, we have no reason to tolerate this betrayal of first principles.
Our governor’s office has little formal power, but one of the powers it does have is appointing university board members. Former Gov. Rick Perry knew how to leverage this authority to push for reform.
Abbott knows his power, too, but the problem is that he has replaced Perry’s reform-minded conservative board members — at least at the University of Texas — with cronies more interested in preserving the status quo, from affirmative action to obscene Title IX policies to backdoor admissions practices that benefit themselves and their clique.
I don’t know the people Abbott has appointed to the board of Texas Southern University, scene of this outrage, or if he is even interested in conducting the affairs of any board other than UT’s, but I do know he can use his influence to make it clear that censorship is utterly unacceptable at public universities in Texas.
Those members of the board of this historically black college who actually believe in freedom, academic or otherwise, needn’t wait for Abbott’s prompting. The scene that took place Monday should never be repeated.
State Rep. Briscoe Cain had been invited to give a talk to a student chapter of the Federalist Society on the recent special session of the state legislature.
Students representing Black Lives Matter marched into the lecture hall at Texas Southern University and began shouting Cain down before his talk had even started, shamelessly accusing him of racism, Klan affiliation, and other invented nonsense.
A dean from the law school stood up for free speech, insisting on order, and getting into a shouting match with a professor on the side of BLM. Campus police removed one of the protest organizers, Justin Tolson, when his unruliness may have crossed the line into actual violence against event organizer Daniel Caldwell, who told me that he has filed a complaint with campus police. In Caldwell’s telling, Tolson chest-bumped him, so Caldwell said Tolson’s breath stank.
“Once I turned my back to him, he slapped me in the back of the head,” Caldwell said.
Then, just as Cain was beginning his remarks, TSU president Austin Lane entered the room with Democratic state Sen. Borris Miles, and interrupted, telling police to allow the disruptive protesters to return. Then he announced the event was being canceled because “the process (for scheduling speakers) has not been followed.”
My friend Charles Blain caught the scene as Miles hustled Cain out of the room, talking about some mysterious failure to follow “proper protocol in setting up the event, though he would not say publicly what that missed protocol was.”
Much like the signs inside warning Cain that he wasn’t in his own “hood,” the state senator had a strangely territorial message for his Republican colleague: “Next time call me when you come to my district, man. Next time we’ll do it the right way.”
The excuse about process was, of course, nonsense. Free speech expert Eugene Volokh writes that even if the procedural issue were valid, he’s never heard of a lawmaker being interrupted and shut down on the spot on those grounds.
The interim dean of TSU’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law, James Douglas, confirmed that Caldwell had gone through the proper procedures. “We have a process here in the law school, and they went through our process,” Douglas said. “The speaker had a First Amendment right to be heard by the students that invited him.”
The university’s official statement just made vague reference to “unauthorized” procedures, but officials were more specific with Caldwell, telling him, he says, “that the Federalist Society wasn’t registered with the Student Government Association. I knew we weren’t registered with them, because we were registered with their law school counterpart, the Student Bar Association.”
Caldwell walked me through the rigmarole he’s gone through for inviting several speakers this semester. For the sake of establishing the insincerity of the university president’s excuse, it’s worth reviewing.
Step 1 is clearing a speaker with the chapter’s faculty advisor. Step 2 is clearing the event with the dean of student affairs at the law school. Step 3 is approval by the dean of the law school, or his delegate, the dean of media relations. Step 4 is the Student Bar Association for approving a date. Step 5 is a room reservation request through a staffer in the dean’s office. The final step is getting approval from the media relations dean for any advertising or social media posts.
After all that, the president of the university pays you a visit at the last minute, apparently, to cancel your event.
Cain, for his part, has used the fracas to draw attention to the Texas House’s refusal to take action on bills protecting free speech on campus.
But this is both a policy issue and a personnel issue. Lane’s actions were unsupportable. He ought to apologize and make it clear that the mistake won’t be repeated.
I don’t expect this, as TSU is the place that disinvited Sen. John Cornyn from giving a commencement speech last spring. Also, the school just canceled another Federalist Society talk on how affirmative action discriminates against Asian-Americans, although Caldwell believes it may have been an innocent misunderstanding.
Nonetheless, the burden is now on Lane. If he can’t demonstrate a commitment to free speech, then the responsibility to do the right thing goes up to his board. Then the buck stops with Abbott.
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