Bill in Colorado senate would eliminate free speech zones on college campuses

Stuart Smith

A bill on the floor of the Colorado state senate would prevent public universities and colleges from designating certain areas on their campus as free speech zones. According to the wording of the bill “a public institution shall not designate any area on campus as a free speech zone or otherwise create policies that imply that its students’ expressive activities are restricted to a particular area of campus.”

Instead, free speech would be allowed on all parts of a campus and public institutions would not be allowed to subject a student to disciplinary action as a result of his or her expression of free speech. The bill would not allow students or faculty and staff to disrupt previously scheduled or reserved activities in a portion or section of the student forum at that scheduled time.

Ad

As reported in the Collegian several weeks ago, the bill was passed through the Education Committee unanimously after two CSU students visited Denver and testified in favor of the bill.

Few Colorado state legislators responded for comment and all but one of those who did said that they were in support of the bill. Representative Kimmi Lewis from Colorado’s 64 district wrote in an email to the Collegian that while she is in support of the bill, the Constitution already guarantees the freedom of speech. Lewis said colleges that stop free speech should have their funding stripped. 

Representative Joann Ginal of Colorado’s 52 district, and a resident of Fort Collins, did not give an exact position on the bill, but did say, on the face of it, it seems like a good idea.

“The recent election has raised tensions and passion,” Ginal wrote in an email to the Collegian. “So there are naturally more discussions about the meaning of free speech.”

Ginal brought up the questions that she thinks about when considering free speech zones. Questions like “is the rest of campus immune to the First Amendment?” and “does it enhance the safety and integrity of our college campuses?” are important to her when thinking about how she will vote on the bill. She also will take into account the testimonies of experts, professors and students of universities when deciding on the bill when it crosses her desk.

The president pro tempore of the Colorado State Senate, Jerry Sonnenberg, also voiced support for the bill.

“Some of our institutions of higher ed are working to encourage open discussions and thoughts, teaching students to think on their own,” Sonnenberg wrote in an email to the Collegian. “We also know of instances where students have been penalized for expressing opinions that differ from teachers and that is … unacceptable.”

Sonnenberg cited University of Northern Colorado as an example. Several years ago UNC formed a Bias Response Team whose stated intention was to act in response to incidences of bias-motivated behavior on campus, according to the Greeley Tribune.

The Greeley Tribune’s article continued, “beyond educational conversations, Bias Response Team members … sought to ‘strengthen’ a professor’s teaching by censoring what that professor [could] cover in class, and… advised another professor not to discuss some sensitive issues at all to avoid offending students.”

The actions of the Bias Response Team gathered numerous complaints from students and staff alike and UNC eliminated the team in September of 2016.

Ad

Another incident involving free speech on a Colorado campus was the protests at CU Boulder when media personality and public speaker Milo Yiannopoulos visited the campus for a speech, angering hundreds of students who protested his being there, resulting in 3 arrests and 1 injury.

Juan Caro, CSU student and chairman of the Conservative Interest Group of Colorado, is a big supporter of the bill.

“I think the bill is fantastic, we absolutely need to restructure how we treat free speech on campus,” Caro said. “We should all be discussing and debating issues that are fundamental to our democracy… but it’s not always going to be an easy discussion to have.”

Collegian reporter Stuart Smith can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @notstuartsmith.