Utah Senator introduces bill to ban ‘free-speech zones’

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah recently introduced legislation to prohibit public universities from restricting expressive activity to so-called “free-speech zones.”

The Free Right to Expression in Education (FREE) Act would make it illegal for any public institution of higher education to impose geographical restrictions on “expressive activity,” which includes peaceful assembly, distributing literature, and circulating petitions.

“Each public institution of higher education…may not prohibit…a person from freely engaging in noncommercial expressive activity in an outdoor area on the institution’s campus if the person’s conduct is lawful,” the bill states.

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In a recent op-ed for National Review announcing the legislation, Hatch expressed worries that free-speech restrictions may be used against conservative views.

“When faced with opinions contrary to their own, some of the most esteemed institutions of higher learning have sought to dampen student expression,” he wrote, adding that there is a “conspicuous bias against conservative views” in higher education.

“What we cannot do is let the voice of a loud and violent minority to stifle those ideas that deserve our respect and consideration,” he continued, saying that in times of “political polarization,” Americans must be “open and receptive to debate instead of seeking to shut it down.”

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According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), free-speech zones refer to often-miniscule areas on campus that some colleges designate for student protest and petitioning. In some cases, students may also need to apply 72 hours in advance to protest, FIRE adds.

While states such as Colorado, Virginia, Missouri, and Arizona have enacted legislation to ban free-speech zones, FIRE asserts that hundreds of thousands of students at other schools are still impacted.

Tyler Coward, FIRE’s legislative counsel, told Campus Reform that free speech zones violate students’ constitutional rights by “by limiting when, where, and how students communicate with their peers.”

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“Colleges must be places where ideas are openly debated, not quarantined into small portions of campus or subject to administrative review or approval,” Coward explained. “If this bill is signed into law, tens of thousands of students across the country will be free from these repressive policies.”

The FREE Act comes just a few months after Republican Representative Phil Roe of Tennessee introduced House Resolution 307, which argued that free-speech zones are “inherently at odds with the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

In total, FIRE has identified at least 51 institutions that maintain free speech zones

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