NASHVILLE (WATE) – A state lawmaker from Knoxville said Wednesday that ISIS should be allowed to recruit at the University of Tennessee and other state universities during discussion about a bill protecting free speech on college campuses.
The bill, called the “Tennessee Student Free Speech Protection Act,” is sponsored by Rep. Martin Daniel (R-Knoxville) and would require the governing boards of Tennessee higher education institutions to adopt a policy on freedom of speech and expression. Martin said during a subcommittee meeting that he believed students’ free speech had been diminished due to unfair policies.
Daniel’s response came after a question from Rep. John DeBerry Jr. (D-Memphis) challenging whether all speech should be considered free.
“Should someone be able to stand in the marketplace, or in the town square at the University of Tennessee, University of Memphis, Murfreesboro, Cookeville, Austin Peay, and recruit for ISIS?” asked DeBerry.
“Yes, so long as it doesn’t disrupt the proceedings on that campus. Yes sir. They can recruit people for any other organization or any other cause. I think it’s just part of being exposed to differing viewpoints,” said Daniel.
DeBerry argued that the world has changed in recent years.
“There are young people who are not ready yet. They’re half-baked, half-cooked, who are recruited to work against their own parents, their own nation, and I would be concerned as a parent and as a citizen,” DeBerry said. “Free speech is one thing. Being stupid is another.”
The bill was taken off notice following the exchange. Martin had pushed for the bill to be sent to summer study.
There are often bold messages and sometimes bold protests at UT. “It’s in the constitution. Everyone should express how they feel towards anything they want to feel,” said student Amen Abdel.
Daniel is working to protect a college student’s freedom of speech no matter if it’s abrasive or unpopular.
“Students absolutely have the right to express themselves and talk about ISIS or the KKK, or Sons of Confederate Veterans, or Black Panthers, whatever view point they have. So long as it doesn’t disrupt proceedings and so long as it doesn’t present an imminent risk of danger,” he said.
House Bill 2063 would not expand the First Amendment or add more rights, but it confirms universities respect freedom of speech.
Akram Faizer, Associate Professor of Law at LMU Duncan School of Law, says it’s a good move because political correctness can essentially be stifling.
“At the end of the day our workplaces should be sensitive and our homes should be safe spaces, a university’s primary objective has to be intellectual vigor and a search for the truth,” he said.
The bill’s goal is allowing undergrads to hear and see differing opinions, preparing for a life outside of college. It’s being met with some confusion.
“There’s a difference between recognizing someone’s right to speech, right to express themselves, and rights to freedom of speech and agreeing with the content of that speech,” said Daniel.
Bottom line students like Rebecca Skinner say, “If people come and they want to express their feelings, that’s okay.”
UT’s current policies for students about freedom of speech say students can gather in public areas in an orderly and peaceful manner; they cannot interfere with traffic either in the road or sidewalk; they cannot interfere with classes, events, ceremonies or scheduled meetings; and if it’s inside a building it must be an assigned meeting room.
Daniel issued a statement Thursday:
I would like to clarify my comments made yesterday before the House Education Administration Committee.
I fundamentally disagree with ISIS’s philosophy and I unequivocally condemn their abhorrent, cruel, inhuman acts of terror and violence. That said, the unavoidable fact is that the First Amendment guarantees us the right to express any opinion, including opinions that most of us find repugnant and fundamentally wrong, so long as they don’t cause an imminent risk of harm. To make it clear, there’s a big difference between saying that someone has a right to speak, and agreeing or disagreeing with the content of that speech. Frankly, simple recruitment efforts by any organization, standing alone, might be protected by the First Amendment. However, offering material support, including one’s service, to a terrorist organization is forbidden by the United States Patriot Act of 2001. Joining ISIS (offering one’s service to a terrorist organization) is illegal, on college campuses or anywhere else in the United States.
Furthermore, although clearly I believe that free speech should generally be protected, if such speech should cross the line so that it becomes an imminent threat to someone, including our country, that would NOT be protected speech (see Brandenburg v Ohio, a Supreme Court opinion from 1969, in which the Supreme Court held that only speech that presents a “clear and present danger” is prohibitable).
I realize these comments may not be satisfactory to some, who may question how I could defend the right to free speech of supporters of a cruel and evil organization like ISIS. Granted, I firmly believe that ISIS is despicable and evil, and I am confident that the vast majority of people with any sense of human decency will agree as well.
I am sure that each of us holds many opinions that someone, somewhere, would find wrong or offensive. My point is that if we weaken the First Amendment by making its protection selective, based on what is currently viewed as evil or inappropriate, we are weakening its ability to protect us all.
Opponents of my Tennessee Student Free Speech Protection Act, by bringing up an unrelated hypothetical situation of ISIS recruiting on campus, have intentionally distracted from the point of my bill, which is to guarantee all students the right to express themselves on college campuses, whether their opinions are considered open-minded, closed-minded, religious, non-religious, anti-religious, brilliant, stupid, progressive, or offensive. I am seeing liberal college administrators impose their views of what is right and proper speech on conservative students who feel uncomfortable in disagreement. I am trying to remedy that problem. ALL students should have the right to express their opinions, and that is what this bill is about.
In conclusion, speech advocating violence is not and should not be legally protected. The remedy for objectionable, disagreeable non-violent speech is not silence or suppression of speech – it is more speech.