Why would a state representative be pushing a bill to protect free speech at Washington’s universities? After all, isn’t free speech one of the most exercised constitutional rights in America?
According to Republican State Representative Matt Manweller, free speech hasn’t been so free on campuses as of late.
“I always thought it was other schools, not our schools. But then the Washington Post did an expose on Washington State University where they had uncovered all the syllabi saying, ‘if you used these words, if you write these words, you will fail or be punished in some way,'” Manweller told KIRO Radio’s Jason Rantz.
“Then last year when the graduate students at UW went on strike so they could have the power to punish people for ‘microaggressions,’ I realized we have a problem at our two flagship universities in Washington,” he said.
Manweller represents the 13th Legislative District, which Includes Ellensburg — home of Central Washington University where he is also a professor. He said his free speech bill is in response to people on college campuses pushing out the essential right when potentially offensive issues arise.
“The idea that a college should be a ‘safe space’ completely misunderstands the purpose of a college,” Manweller said. “Colleges are supposed to pull you out of your comfort zone. They are supposed to force you to confront people and ideas that are new to you. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable. That’s how we grow intellectually. That’s how we grow as people.”
His bill goes further than mere free speech, however, and includes other hot button issues at campuses, such as trigger warnings — notices to students that educational material might be offensive.
“We’re supposed to somehow know which words or passages of a book will cause some sort of emotional reaction,” Manweller said. “My belief is that every book that I assign should trigger some sort of emotional reaction, otherwise I wouldn’t assign it.”
“To suggest that we have to cleanse history, or cleanse literature — some of the great works in western civilization are about uncomfortable topics with respect to sex, or race or violence,” he said. “Read any Shakespeare book and you’re going to come across sex, race and violence…it becomes almost absurd when you talk about trigger warnings in that way.”
There are five core parts to the bill that Manweller is proposing:
Reaffirms the constitutional right to free speech and promotes that colleges are places where students are challenged with opposing and offensive ideas.
States that no free-speech zones can be established, rather, the entire campus is a free-speech zone.
Universities must allow professors to use trigger warnings at their discretion. Meaning the teacher will face no repercussions if they opt not to warn students of potentially offensive material
Universities may not take action against students, faculty or staff who use microaggressions. It further states that professors and institutions may develop courses related to microaggressions.
Students and faculty must have due process for alleged violations.
According to the bill, if a court finds an institution violated any part of Manweller’s legislation, such as penalizing a professor for a microaggression or not using a trigger warning, they will be fined at least $500 and $50 for each day the violation continues.
When it comes to reaffirming the constitutional right to free speech, Manweller points to colleges where free-speech zones have been established.
“The entire United States is a free-speech zone,” he said. “That means your entire campus is a free-speech zone, not some little part that some administrator has carved out.”
But as with federal protections for free speech, there are limits.
“We can’t allow students to engage in a protest during the middle of math class during final exams. It’s akin to walking into the back of a theater and screaming ‘fire,'” Manweller said.
Manweller said that so far he has the support of every Republican member of the House Higher Education Committee. He’s spent the last six months reaching out to Democrats. He is confident that he will be able to get bi-partisan support for the bill. In his view, Liberals have been the most affected by recent threats to free speech.
“Democrats care about civil liberties too,” he said. “Democrats care about due process and free speech rights. It’s not conservative professors and conservative university presidents that are getting ridden out of town on a rail, it’s liberal university professors and liberal deans.”
“I often reference the French Revolution,” Manweller said. “When Robespierre ran out of heads to cut off, his clan turned on him and he became a victim of the guillotine. That’s what we are seeing on university campuses. It used to be, ‘go get the conservatives.’ They’ve run out of conservatives to get, so now they are turning on their own. I think there will be surprising bi-partisan support for this.”