Republican lawmaker tries to rally support for campus free-speech bill held in a House committee

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Utah’s public colleges are not upholding student free speech, says Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, and she has several bills in the 2019 Legislature aimed at remedying the civil rights violations.

Tuesday, Coleman addressed an open session of the House GOP caucus, telling her colleagues that so-called “safety zones” on Utah campuses are really denying the free speech rights of conservatives and, in fact, all students.

Joe Cohn of FIRE, a student free speech group, a guest of Coleman’s, said all of Utah’s public colleges are violating basic rights of free speech – with Dixie University perhaps the worst.

It has gotten to the point, said Coleman, where some students don’t even want to hear speech in favor of Trump’s southern border wall, and so are demanding from their university administrators that such talk shouldn’t be heard on campus.

“We are seeing” free speech being stopped “on both sides” of current issues, said Coleman, “from the top down” at Utah and other universities.

We are seeing free speech policies at universities “that are really censorship” disguised as “overbroad, anti-harassment” actions, she said.

Coleman has HB158, higher education speech rights, which she believes would help ban such activities, and gives a cause of action to a student who believes his or her free speech rights have been abridged by a university.

While Coleman’s bill could provide free speech guarantees for anyone on campus, liberal or conservative, her interest in the issue came when she was a freshman, attending an ALEC seminar, and saw then-Dixie College as one of the major transgressors, according to the conservative legislative group’s material.

Coleman says Utah’s universities are trying to protect students from any kind of speech that could be objectionable to about anyone, causing any kind of emotional distress.

She is not talking about hate speech, or any kind of aggressive talk that would clearly advocate violence.

But more and more, universities are setting up “safety zones,” where students can’t be offended by any kind of speech that they may see as harmful.

This, of course, is not what universities are supposed to be about – the free-flowing ideas that are debated, considered and discussed.

Most of the time, said Cohn, students don’t even know that their rights are being violated – they are just told they can’t talk about this or that in this public space on the university campus.

Coleman said some schools have set up “four-by-four” foot areas where just anything can be said – but these places are not in well-attended public places on campus, but seem set up so no one can really hear what is being said.

The bill was first sent to the House Education Standing Committee but then sent by that committee to the House Judiciary Committee, where it failed to advance to the floor for a vote.