Colorado to eliminate ‘free speech zones’ on college campuses

Stuart Smith

Free speech zones are dead in Colorado – they were recently voted out of existence almost unanimously by the Colorado State Legislature.

A busy plaza at CSU while students rush to class, catch up with friends, or hang out. (Photo by Kasen Schamaun|Collegian)

A bill that will eliminate free speech zones on college campuses in Colorado passed the Colorado State House unanimously Tuesday morning. It was passed 64-0, with one representative, Lang Sias of Arvada, excused from the vote.

Instead of campuses having designated free speech zones, such as the Plaza at CSU, there will not be specific zones for free speech.

“The bill has been through some changes through the legislative process which have addressed issues balancing our full support of free speech while also needing to maintain an effective classroom and learning environment,” wrote Mike Hooker, the executive director of public affairs and communications for CSU, in an email to the Collegian. “We support the current version of the bill.”

The bill, according to its own wording, would prohibit “public institutions of higher education from limiting or restricting student expression in a student forum.”

According to the bill public institutions of education would not be able to subject a student to disciplinary action as a result of that expression, but that students would not be granted the right to disrupt previously scheduled activities in an area of the student forum at the scheduled time.

However, “(a) student who has been denied access to a student forum for expressive purposes may bring a court action to recover reasonable court costs and attorney fees.”

The bill has received strong support from legislators. When the Collegian covered the bill in the past, it had just passed through the Senate’s education committee unanimously and has since passed the entire state senate 32-2. After it was introduced in the State, Veterans and Military Affairs committee it passed with only one “no” vote.

The bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, in January in response to the conflicts on college campuses around the nation. In particular, the bill was discussed and voted on in committee the day after the Berkeley riots that resulted from the arrival of Milo Yiannapolous.

Once the bill reached the House, it was sponsored by two representatives, Democrat Jeff Bridges from Greenwood Village and Republican Stephen Humphrey from Severance.

The bill was supported by several organizations, including the ACLU, the University of Colorado and the Colorado Press Association.

In an interview with the Colorado Statesman, Bridges cited conversation as the reason for the bill’s success.

“Free speech is such a core value, so anytime you address it folks are going to want to make sure you’re furthering and expanding expression and not restraining it,” he said. “From the progressive perspective there’s a feeling that, in the era we’re living in, we have to engage across the spectrum… We should always be fighting for free expression on college campuses. That’s just fundamental.”

Juan Caro, a senior ecosystem science and sustainability major, is a large supporter of the bill and travelled to the Capitol twice to testify for the bill in the committees it was in.

In an interview with the Collegian last time the bill was covered, Caro laid out his reasoning for supporting the bill.

“What we realized,” he said, “is that these safe spaces don’t work and, if there’s going to be a riot like we saw at Berkeley, there’s going to be a riot whether there’s an imaginary line or a free-speech zone or there’s not.”

“What we’re arguing is, because of the fear of these riots and of the retaliation, we’ve ended up surrendering our rights…” Caro said. “And we’ve been given these Free Speech zones, safe spaces, which are unconstitutional.”

The bill will now go to the desk of Gov. John Hickenlooper for him to either approve or veto.

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