Sen. Hatch introduces bill to end free speech zones on campuses

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Rick Bowmer
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is concerned that when some of the most esteemed institutions of higher learning are faced with opinions contrary to their own, they have sought to dampen student expression. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Editor’s note: this story pairs with “University practices influence free speech on North American campuses”

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT, recently introduced a bill that would prevent U.S. college campuses from quarantining student expression in free speech zones. The Free Right To Expression In Education Act would protect free speech and allow those whose speech is restricted to sue the college in federal court and obtain initial and ongoing damages.

In a National Review article on Feb. 7, 2018, Hatch said students across the nation have brought “a conspicuous bias against conservative views … in higher education” to Congress’ attention. He said college campuses should allow students to “explore their beliefs, debate conflicting ideas and find common ground.”

Hatch chastised students that intentionally stir up controversy, specifically noting the growing number of campus speakers that have been cancelled or subject to violent mobs. The Utah senator said it is shameful for universities to bow to “thugs.”

“To silence speech for fear of reprisal is a cowardly surrender of our most basic constitutional rights,” Hatch said in the article.

The Free Right to Expression in Education Act would forbid public universities from imposing geographical restrictions on expression, including distributing petitions or literature and peaceful assembly.

Five states, including Utah, already have legislation in place that forbids confining student expression to free speech zones. However, Hatch said a student’s right to free speech should not depend on the state they reside in.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 1 in 10 of the top 400 universities in the United States has a free speech zone.

Diana Ginn, a professor at Schulich School of Law, said she finds the idea of free speech zones odd. She illustrated her concerns by applying free speech zone logic to equality.

I don’t think we would ever consider setting aside equality zones where men and women get equal treatment,” Ginn said. “That would mean that, outside the equality rooms, they’re not (equal) and I think we would all raise our eyebrows at that argument.”

The Foundation Individual Rights in Education’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project has sponsored litigation or litigated 14 free speech zone cases.

Free speech restrictions in those cases include a student detained and interrogated by Joliet Junior College campus police for handing out flyers critical of capitalism, a student at Los Angeles Pierce College stopped for handing out copies of the Constitution without a permit outside the designated free speech zone, and Dixie State refusing to approve promotional posters for the Young Americans for Liberty chapter.

The non-profit foundation issued a statement in support of Hatch’s bill and said, “free speech zones … at colleges and universities have been used to stifle student speech from across the political spectrum.”

These are states that already have legislation prohibiting free speech zones on public universities:

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