As a conservative woman, I consider campus free speech and free association protections to be vitally important.

In my experience, conservative women are more likely to have their ideas attacked and silenced on many campuses. Maybe it’s because we believe in taking responsibility for our actions. Maybe it’s because we don’t blame the so-called misogynistic patriarchy for all our problems. Maybe it’s because we refuse to believe there is a glass ceiling limiting our opportunities or maybe it’s because we know we don’t have to keep the victim card in our back pockets “just in case.” Whatever the reason, conservative women can sometimes find themselves with a target on their back.

Consider the case of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. A few years ago, Rice was invited to Rutgers University to deliver a commencement address. The campus outcry was so divisive that Rice eventually declined to speak.

Two years later while delivering a commencement address at the same school, then president Barack Obama reminded the students and faculty of Rutgers that they should embrace debate and discussion. “Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities,” counseled Obama. “Go at them if they’re not making any sense. Use your logic and reason and words.” The Rutgers population could have used that message a couple years earlier.

Discouraging free speech and association

Far too often, college campuses are not places where students are encouraged to use logic, reason and words to dialogue about a controversial issue. As a conservative woman in college, I personally encountered an environment that discouraged political free speech and association.

As a freshman, I realized that there was a need for an organization where students could meet and discuss different ideas. So, I started a student conservative women’s organization to do just that. To start, I needed a faculty sponsor. My potential sponsor, though, had concerns of backlash from other faculty members. She was also worried about how her employer – the administration of the college – would treat her for sponsoring a conservative political group. This woman loved her job. She was a good professor. She was a great advisor. It’s terrible she had to consider the future stability of her job before she could sponsor a campus club that shared her own opinions and beliefs.

As it turns out, her concerns were real. The university did not appreciate our group’s constitution. The administration was scared. They were scared of causing any sort of friction among students. And they were scared that some students might be offended. After much back and forth, I finally persuaded the Student Life administrators to allow our group to be formed, thus creating an empowering place where conservative women could assemble, meet, and share our ideas.

It’s concerning to me that my own college campus was so nervous about legitimate debate on important topics that my own group almost didn’t even get started, which, in a way, would have silenced my own voice. Whatever happened to the constitutional right to free association?

The FORUM Act

It’s also concerning to me that, even here in Mississippi, attacks are made on campus free speech. However, there are some who are combating this, like Rep. Stacey Wilkes who introduced The FORUM Act this legislative session. Though it did not become law this year, the protections Rep. Wilkes is championing, such as the right to free speech and free association on Mississippi college campuses, are incredibly important. FORUM is designed to protect the lawful, constitutional expression of students and the campus community, provide recourse should those rights be inhibited, and to make the university accountable for protecting those rights.

As a Missouri native, I know firsthand the problems that can occur when college campuses do not have clear policies to protect the free speech and free association rights of all students. Three years after I established my conservative women’s club, months of protests at the University of Missouri showed just how necessary legislation like the FORUM Act is and what can happen when colleges and universities do not have a clear plan to follow that would protect the campus community’s right to speech.

The University of Missouri

At one such protest, a professor taking part in the demonstration demanded the use of force to keep student journalists from documenting the protestors, violating the media’s First Amendment protection to do so. It took four months and intense pressure from the media and the public before she was fired from her position at Mizzou. Following this incident, campus police threatened the Mizzou community announcing that the university’s Office of Student Conduct would take “disciplinary action” against students who had reportedly engaged in any “hurtful speech.” The email sent out with the announcement stated that though the language was not criminal, they wanted such incidents reported and that the Office of Student Conduct could take disciplinary action if the individuals were identified as students.

Four months prior to all of this, in July, Missouri became the second state in the nation to pass the Campus Free Expression Act (Senate Bill 93). The legislation’s purpose was to protect campus media coverage and counter protests, as well as regular protests anywhere on university property. Essentially, the bill eliminated campus free-speech zones. In this case, obviously, protestors were taking full advantage of that freedom. Which is good, and this was a good first step. However, had the Missouri legislature gone further, passing something like the FORUM Act, most of what happened at Mizzou could have been avoided, or dealt with in a more appropriate way.

What FORUM would do is bring back a campus culture in which people get accustomed to hearing points of views different than their own. From there, they would learn to respond in a respectful and civil manner. This is the exact opposite of what Mizzou did. Instead, they tried to suppress the speech of others in their attempt to appease the protestors. Once all the drama cleared, Mizzou realized where they went wrong in prolonging the protests and began taking steps to recover. This included adopting a policy statement committing the university to free speech principles.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is credited with writing that, “The protection of a people’s right to hear is of particular importance on college campuses, where students’ intellectual development is dependent on the ‘free trade in ideas.’” Ultimately, it is dedication to these principles that we should all share – whether conservative or liberal, or female or male.

Everyone will benefit from campus free speech and free association protections, especially the students our university systems are supposed to serve.