Utah lawmakers silence campus free speech bill passage

A free speech bill failed in the House Judiciary Committee of the Utah Legislature earlier in February by a 3-7 vote. 

The bill indicated that it would “prohibit an institution from punishing certain acts of speech that do not constitute discriminatory harassment; and create a cause of action related to discriminatory harassment at an institute of higher education; and enact provisions related to the free expression policies of an institution of higher education.”

Utah Republican state Rep. Kim Coleman, who sponsored the bill, has presented free speech legislation since 2016, including a 2017 bill that classified outdoor areas of public colleges and universities as “traditional public forums,” which Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed into law.

[RELATED: Utah Senator Introduces Bill to Ban Free Speech Zones] 

Several people testified in favor of the bill, including Connor Boyack from the Libertas Institute and University of Utah (UU) student Sophia Bagley. Spencer Jenkins from the Utah State Board of Regents and Stephanie Hollist, deputy general counsel of Weber State University, spoke about their concerns on the bill.

Coleman referenced the “Davis Standard” (Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education) throughout her presentation, which defines peer-on-peer sexual harassment as “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.” 

She also stated that the Utah ACLU is in support of the legislation. 

Coleman referenced a free speech panel on which she was invited to speak at Utah State University. The USU Student Association Vice President for Diversity and Clubs Josh Johnson said that he doesn’t think hate speech should be protected. In response to a question about what happens when students object to speech, Coleman responded, “I have to disagree. You never want a governmental entity to suppress the minority speech ever. We have had amazing progress in civil rights because we have protected and respected the minority voice.”

[RELATED: Prez ‘surprised’ and ‘shocked’ that UF must allow free speech]

UU Student Sophia Bagley, who testified in favor of the bill, cited an instance when fliers were approved by the university to be posted around campus, but were the subject of discrimination and harassment complaints by several organizations and taken down “by unknown groups.” She also said that she has had positive experiences with free speech while tabling and having open discourse with other students.

“It is important that we protect the speech of students,” Utah State Representative Brady Brammer, who opposed the bill, told Campus Reform. “The bill was intended to address the potential chilling of speech on campus. However, there was no evidence of complaints or action taken against students by any of the state entities. Thus, while I certainly value the intent of the bill, I felt the bill was not addressing a current need.”

“I think it is important to define that line [discriminatory harassment and free expression], especially on the state level. discrimination of ideas is a very real problem on campus, not only when doing events but also in the classroom,” Utah Valley University student Sarah Clark told Campus Reform. “Students deserve to be protected, what is a college campus without freedom of speech? College campuses are meant to be a place where ideas flow freely, they make everyone better, we cannot continue to allow discrimination on our college campuses, it is a disservice to students.”

“Free speech is under attack on college campuses across America,” Coleman told Campus Reform. “Utah has only experienced a few events of overt violations of constitutionally protected speech, that we know of. What we cannot measure is the quiet, subtle suppression of thoughts, ideas, and expressions embedded throughout university policies that have an immeasurable chilling effect on students and faculty.”

The state representative noted on Instagram that Dixie State University in St. George, Utah was also recently named one of the ‘worst colleges for free speech’ by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

”At the very institutions that have long been regarded as bastions of free speech, arenas of robust exchanges of ideas, and incubators of critical thought, we see a troubling trend of these governmental institutions restricting the very thing they claim to be a core part of their missions,” she added while speaking with Campus Reform. “Free expression is not just something we enjoy in a free society, it is necessary to retain that free society. But too often, our campus life has become a training ground for lifelong suppression of expression.”

Update: The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee on Friday, March 1.

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