Campus Free Speech Amendments bill in committee

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Lisa Rathke
Hundreds of Middlebury College students protest during Charles Murray’s lecture in Middlebury, Vermont, Thursday, March 2, 2017. A bill protecting students’ right to protest on their campuses is in committee. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

A bill advocating for free speech of students on public college campuses is in committee. Rep. Kim Coleman, R-Salt Lake, is the sponsor of the HB54, which has been in development for over a year.

If passed, HB54 would protect public university students’ right to peacefully gather, protest or speak, distribute literature, carry signs or circulate a petition at universities.

The protections would only apply to gatherings in outdoor areas. Additionally, universities would be allowed to impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of demonstrations as long as the restrictions “are narrowly tailored to serve a significant institutional interest,” according to the bill.

Under the provisions of the bill, universities cannot limit “expressive activity” based on point of view or content.

“With increased turmoil on campuses at many of our nation’s institutions of higher education, we need to protect the speech of all our students, while protecting students from harassment and intimidation,” Coleman said.

One example Coleman gave was Dixie State’s lawsuit against students who posted fliers making fun of political leaders.

The fliers were protests against the school’s policy banning literature that disparaged political figures, a policy that was later found unconstitutional.

“Public universities may not unconstitutionally limit expression, but they have,” Coleman said. “This bill simply affirms many Supreme Court rulings that government property is a free speech area.”

Coleman said the First Amendment limits the government to institutions it funds, leaving private schools, including BYU, to develop their own freedom of expression codes.

BYU’s public expression policy prohibits demonstrations and protests that disrupt regular activities. Anyone who wants to hold a protest on campus must fill out a request form. Anyone not affiliated with BYU may not hold such demonstrations at all.

The Dean of Students Office may deny the request based on its message or apply any restrictions on the time, location and manner of the demonstration.

Recently BYU has seen several demonstrations on campus. Students held a demonstration near campus demanding an Honor Code immunity clause for sexual assault victims on BYU campus April 2016. BYU students protested Donald Trump’s presidency on campus November 2016.

BYU student Caitlyn Mack, 27, said she agrees with HB54 and said student demonstrations and protests are a part of democracy that should be protected.

“I think that college campuses should be a safe place to voice differing opinions,” Mack said. 

Cameron Martin, UVU’s vice president for university relations, said university officials are monitoring HB54. He also said UVU values protests and demonstrations as opportunities to partake in a variety of thoughts, backgrounds and theories.

“Part of a full university experience is being exposed to a variety of thoughts, backgrounds and theories,” Martin said.

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