Threat of violence would halt controversial speakers
It has become difficult to determine the limits of freedom of speech on campuses as police break up protests between the so-called “alt-right” and leftist groups and white nationalists such as Richard Spencer are blocked from speaking on campus.
If controversial speakers or groups decide to come to UH, administrators said only the threat of violence would prevent that speech.
According to the University’s Manual of Administrative Policies and Procedures (MAPP), the University is a place where freedom of expression is encouraged, and will not be denied based on viewpoint.
According to Eric Bentley at the Office of General Counsel, UH is an open campus for expressive activity, but six areas of campus, including Butler Plaza and Lynn Eusan Park, can be reserved in advance.
“We have one of the most liberal freedom of expression policies that I know of,” Bentley said.
There are six areas on campus, where students or various outsiders can pass out pamphlets, host events and protest.
Associate Dean of Students Kamran Raiz said the University does not censor the content of a person or group on campus, whether they are University-affiliated or not.
“We will allow free speech, but our concern is the safety for the person or property, which is university policy,” Raiz said. “We are not going to look at what someone is saying and make a decision that you can or can’t protest based on what you are saying. As long as it’s within the law, then it will be allowed.”
UH spokesperson Mike Rosen said in an email that the University does not approve speakers, it approves events they are affiliated with, as long as they follow the principles of the Manual of Administrated Policies and Procedures.
“The decision is not made based on the speaker or viewpoints,” Rosen said.
Only Cesar Moore Jr., the chief of UHPD, could make the call to halt a campus event in the case of violence or threat of violence.
In September 2016, conservative Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos spoke at the Student Center Theatre as part of his “Dangerous F****t” tour, which faced criticism at a number of universities nationwide.
Carrie Miller, the theatre director for the Cullen Performance Hall, one of UH’s highest profile venues, said that if Richard Spencer attempted to reserve a time to speak, it would be approved.
“We don’t limit content,” Miller said.
The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. Dean of the Law Center Leonard M. Baynes said in a featured discussion with Houston Public Media called “Briefcase” that the government may not prohibit offensive political speech, but that the judicial system has needed to re-evaluate the extent of the First Amendment at times.
Students like political science senior and vice president of UH College Democrats Odus Evbagharu think differently about campus speech.
“We are at a climate right now where being divisive is not helping,” Evbagharu said. “It’s not helping anyone’s cause, especially on a college campus, where you’re trying to find yourself, you’re trying to better understand yourself, and then for other people to come and try to divide you even more makes zero sense.”
Evbagharu said that he would hope the University would not allow someone like Spencer to speak on campus because it would create division.
Marketing senior and president of the UH College of Republicans Tony Cruz said that he believes the only limits to freedom of speech are the Constitution and harm or panic among participants.
“If you disagree with someone, you don’t have to listen to them, but you have to let people speak, because that’s what you would expect people to do toward you,” Cruz said.
Cruz said that even though he does not agree with people like Spencer, or “alt-right” and “alt-left” groups, he still supports their ability to speak.
When it comes to universities hosting controversial speakers on campus, Evbagharu said he believes that campuses should host someone that can counterbalance their argument to protect free speech.
“If you’re going to bring the Richard Spencers of the world, then bring the Angela Davises,” Evbagharu said, referring to a progressive activist. “Bring people that severely oppose them and let them have a forum. Don’t just make it exclusively an alt-right thing, especially on a college campus because it’s not productive. Let’s hear both sides.”
Where freedom of expression is allowed, the MAPP states that violence or damage to property is prohibited when it comes to stating your opinion on campus.
Cruz said that he believes people become violent because they are taking what the other side is saying too personally, and they feel the need to take action.
“In their mind they might be thinking that they’re doing something good, but it’s one of those things to where the path to hell is paved through good intentions,” Cruz said. “They believe they’re doing something good, but ultimately it’s going to lead to something really bad — a place where people having freedom of speech will be taken away altogether.”
If safety becomes an issue during an on-campus protest or speech, Raiz, the associate dean of students, said police will become involved.
More rules and regulations about reserving an event or holding protests at UH can be found in the MAPP.
“People are more than welcome to exercise their rights to free speech at the University of Houston,” Raiz said. “We don’t stop anyone on their content. Our concern is the safety of our community members and property.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article implied that only six locations on campus are available for free expression. The entire campus is open to host free expression, and six locations are available for reservation.