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Analysis: Free speech in Texas, if you have a minute or two

You’ve heard about “snowflakes” on campus — the people who melt when they hear things they don’t want to hear or cannot deal with? Here’s your opportunity to see some elected snowflakes in action.

Students at Texas A&M in College Station protest outside the venue where white nationalist Richard Spencer spoke on December 6, 2016.

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Today’s journey into the ironosphere takes us to the Texas Senate’s Committee on State Affairs, which recently posted a notice of an upcoming meeting with this subject line: “Ascertain any restrictions on Freedom of Speech rights that Texas students face in expressing their views on campus along with freedoms of the press, religion, and assembly. Recommend policy changes that protect First Amendment rights and enhance the free speech environment on campus.”

Official Texas is apparently all worked up about restriction of speech at state universities — a perfectly good thing to worry about, if you’re really interested in having free speech at state universities.

If that sounds a little bit snarky, read this next line from the Senate’s official notice: “Public testimony will be limited to 2 minutes.”

This stuff writes itself.

If Texas senators really believed it possible to express important and nuanced opinions in 120 seconds, they wouldn’t talk so much themselves. Have you ever watched a session of the Texas Senate? It’s an underappreciated non-medical cure for insomnia and other sleep disorders.

Here’s a challenge: Watch their hearing. Time the senators’ own remarks. See if they toe their own line.

The public hearing’s subject line comes directly from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who put campus speech on his list of things for senators to work on before the next regular legislative session a year from now. It’s certainly topical: A couple of weeks before Patrick issued his interim assignments, a state lawmaker — Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park — had an appearance before the Federalist Society chapter at Texas Southern University shut down when students protested his presence there.

What can and can’t be said at universities — and when, and in which venues and by which persons — has been a running controversy. Conservatives are particularly worked up, but it’s not limited to the right: One tracker, called the “Disinvitation Database,” records instances from across the United States where protesters have tried to block campus speakers from across the political spectrum.

It’s worth a question or two at the campus level, and in the case of public universities, it has attracted the attention of the legislators who exercise a lot of control over policy and funding at those schools.

The problem is that they’re not all that enamored of free speech themselves.

Two minutes is shorter than the commercial breaks on your favorite TV shows. Movie trailers are longer than two minutes. For the average reader, two minutes is equivalent to about 400 words — their two-minute bell would have rung right at the beginning of this sentence. Speaking is slower — averaging 110 to 150 words per minute; they would have stopped around the above mention of the Disinvitation Database.

Senators can barely say “good morning” in less than two minutes. But they apparently can’t listen to anyone else for longer than two minutes.

In a widely noted instance last year, state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, ended a pro-choice advocate’s testimony — she kept talking when her time was up — by breaking a glass tabletop with his gavel.

Their time limit isn’t that unusual in government. Public commenters and interest groups would make some hearings last for months if they were allowed to run free.

But the two-minute drill in the Senate is awfully tight, particularly when the subject is free speech. In this case — hearings on whether colleges and universities should be more open to the views of people they don’t necessarily agree with, on whether the sensitivities of college kids are off the charts — it makes the hotshots from the state Capitol sound like a pack of hypocrites.

You’ve heard about “snowflakes” on campus — the people who melt when they hear things they don’t want to hear or cannot deal with?

Here’s your opportunity to see some elected snowflakes in action. Go to Texas State University in San Marcos (LBJ Student Center, 3rd Floor Ballroom) on January 31 at 10 a.m., or pull up the Senate’s livestream that morning. But be sure not to leave your seat for more than two minutes — you might entirely miss some Texans’ views on free speech if you do.

Disclosure: Texas Southern University, the Texas State University System and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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