Lawmakers consider free speech on Utah’s college campuses

Utah State CapitolWhile the Berkeley student riot that denied an alt-right speaker on campus is not the reason, perhaps there couldn’t be a more timely debate over four of state Rep. Kim Coleman’s free speech at public colleges efforts.

“This is not a partisan issue; free speech should never be so,” says Coleman, R-West Jordan.

But some conservatives are saying liberal public higher education institutions both in the classroom and in public places on campuses are stymying conservative speech.

And Coleman’s bills may be touching some sore spots in Utah.

Here are the bills:

  • HB54, Campus Free Speech.
  • HB103, Campus Anti-harassment.
  • HB284, Student Right to Counsel.
  • HB334, Academic Freedom Act.

From 2011 through 2013, says Coleman, the federal education department issued several letters, now called the “Dear Colleague” missives, which had a chilling effect on free speech on college campuses.

Coleman says her bills, combined, are meant to draw some lines, rules if you will, to ensure due process and free speech on Utah’s public college campuses.

“It is prudent that we do this,” she says, for free speech is very, very important. But at the same time, violence, prejudice, and other acts should not be tolerated in the name of free speech.

“Throwing things and burning down buildings is not free speech. It has never been. And the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on these issues many times.”

Just several weeks ago, “students” (some say the violent folks were not students) at the University of California, Berkeley, protested the scheduled speech on campus by far-right provocateur and Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos.

Fearing violence against him and in the auditorium, the speech was canceled. Yiannopoulos never did address the audience.

“For me, regardless of the political nature” of free speech, it should be allowed, as long as it is peaceful, says Coleman.

There are swings in U.S. political activities in public and on campuses. What may be seen as extreme right or left at one time may change, and in turn, each side is seen as more or less politically correct.

But that is not what free speech should be about – trends.

“We need tolerance and civility on all ideas,” she says.

Coleman says she has a child at a public university now, and her daughter has told her that some of her fellow students believe burning down something on campus should be allowed, for it is a form of free speech.

No, says Coleman.

There need to be lines drawn on what really is free speech, and what is really violence and, indeed, criminal acts.

“Violence is never protected speech.”

Under her bills, public colleges in Utah would have to provide a public place for free speech.

 And if free speech of all sorts is not allowed, the institution is liable under civil court actions.

Students must get legal counsel in some cases.

And instructors/professors can’t be punished by administrators for using their free speech rights. (Of course, tenure is supposed to protect full professors from such pressure, but non-tenured teachers have less protection.)

“Free speech is free,” in the sense that there should be no costs for expressing it.

“But we need to clarify those lines” so anti-free speech actions are held accountable at the institutional level.