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House panel gives unanimous support to campus free speech bill

Published February 17, 2017 10:19 am

Utah System of Higher Education official warns bill could spell more lawsuits.
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A bill protecting free speech rights on public college and university campuses sailed through committee with a unanimous vote Thursday.

HB54 designates the outdoor areas of a campus as public forums and allows for legal action if expression is limited in those areas without narrowly tailored, viewpoint-neutral criteria.

Bill sponsor Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, said there have been instances where campus administrators have limited speech to certain areas, or required prior approval for demonstration or assembly.

She also referenced a 2015 incident at Dixie State University, in which three students sued the school after being told they violated school policy by distributing fliers lampooning former President George W. Bush without receiving permission in advance.

Dixie altered its policies as a result of the lawsuit, but Coleman said there is a need to preserve spontaneous acts of constitutionally protected expression.

"Their rights were denied by the institution," Coleman said of the Dixie State University students. "If that would have been our standard, we wouldn't be a country."

Marina Lowe, legislative counsel for the ACLU of Utah, spoke in support of the bill. Diversity of thought is a key component of higher education, she said.

"I can think of no more appropriate place to really be affirming the right of speakers to speak than on a college campus," Lowe said.

Spencer Jenkins, assistant commissioner of public affairs for the Utah System of Higher Education, said Utah's colleges and universities have worked to update their free speech policies. He did not speak against the bill, but cautioned lawmakers that the portions dealing with litigation increases the liability of public campuses and, by extension, the state of Utah.

Members of the House Judiciary Committee approved the bill on a vote of 11-0. It will now go before the full House for consideration.






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