In late January, a University of Louisville student stirred controversy when he passed out pamphlets to students enrolled in an LGBTQ Studies course on the college campus. The pamphlets were considered “anti-gay literature” by the press and some students and faculty members. But the university initially stood by its free speech policy and said the student was exercising his First Amendment free speech rights when he showed up at the class on January 28.
Now, this week, the university reversed course and informed the student that he could not distribute pamphlets to the same class and have no more contact with the course professor or the enrolled students. The male student was not enrolled in the LGBTQ Studies course.
Contrary to the claims of the offended students, the pamphlets did not qualify as hate speech and both state law and university policy prohibited the university from limiting students’ free speech rights. The male student distributed the pamphlets, then waited outside the classroom until the class ended. His conduct was reported to administrators and in a meeting with them, he was told he was free to distribute pamphlets to the class again.
One of the enrolled students claimed that University of Louisville President Neeli Bendapudi met with them and was sympathetic, but reiterated that her hands were tied on the matter. After more deliberation and meetings with enrolled students and other faculty over the next two weeks, the administration reversed its decision this past week and barred the student from returning to the class to distribute the aforementioned pamphlets. They based their decision on the belief that the male student said he would return to the class again to distribute pamphlets. Now, the university will place a police officer outside of the classroom for the duration of the semester.
Kentucky state law, passed in 2019, protects the rights of students and faculty members to express their personal viewpoints without interference from administrators and “free speech zones.” Free speech zones are designated physical locations where college administrators limit one’s right to express their freedom of speech, which have popped up across the country at various college and university campuses. Additionally, the University of Louisville’s own Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities indicates that the university has the right to restrict the expression of free speech.
A pro-traditional family organization in Kentucky, the Kentucky Family Foundation, criticized the University of Louisville for their policy reversal. A representative from the organization told Inside Higher Ed that a student showing up to a class with an opposing viewpoint is not a safety risk and added, “Our concern here is that the university might be considering alternative ideas as safety threats…That itself is a threat to the free exchange of ideas.”
It is yet another example of how the current young and college-age generation perceive free speech. Speech and words are considered weapons in today’s society and necessitates free speech restrictions (such as “free speech zones”) and “safe spaces” where young people can allegedly voice their opinions with a feeling of safety and free from judgment of peers. The University of Louisville caved into pressure from the LGBTQ community instead of standing up for the First Amendment.