Jennifer Schubert-Akin: Bill would reaffirm students’ First Amendment rights
March 29, 2017
While Democrats and Republicans are increasingly polarized over contentious issues like healthcare and tax reform, they are quietly coalescing around the issue of free speech in states like Colorado.
Consider the free speech bill that unanimously passed Colorado's House of Representatives last week. The bill reaffirms the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment freedom of speech and freedom of assembly protections for students at Colorado's public universities.
The bill was crafted by Democrat Rep. Jeff Bridges and conservative Republicans Rep. Stephen Humphrey and Sen. Tim Neville. It also had input from the Steamboat Institute's Emerging Leaders Advisory Council members Marcus Fotenos and Colton Lyons, who are co-student body presidents at University of Colorado-Boulder.
The bill ensures the right of students to speak "in any way in a public forum" and forbids universities from imposing "unreasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of student speech." In practice this means eliminating the use of so-called "free speech zones," which cordon off speech to a particular spot on campus.
Free speech zones are a relic of the 1960s when Vietnam War protests were common. According to a tally by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, roughly one in six of the country's top universities have free speech zones that shunt potentially disagreeable speech out of public view.
For instance, University of Colorado — Colorado Springs officials recently sent student Brandon Leiser to a free speech zone for campaigning on school property for then-U.S. Senate candidate Darryl Glenn.
Of course, free speech zones are the height of irony. They restrict speech while ostensibly promoting it.
The First Amendment's clause, "Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech" clearly implies all U.S. public property, including college campuses, are protected for free speech. In an Orwellian twist, attorneys for many universities posit that "unscheduled speech" must take place in the campus' free speech zones. Fortunately, CU's student government leaders recognized this irony and are leading the charge to restore free speech across campus.
But the arguments for protecting free speech extend beyond just constitutional principle and fundamental human rights. Free speech should also be encouraged on campus for its utilitarian aspects of fostering learning and understanding — the purpose of the college experience. College campuses have increasingly become ideological bubbles, which only can be pierced by exposing students to multiple points of view.
"Limiting speech on campus is completely antithetical to everything that university life stands for," says Fotenos. "Restricting students' ability to express their ideas freely diminishes the quality of debate and discussion that helps individuals progress in their thoughts and ideas."
Yet at college campuses across the country, free speech is under attack. University of California, Berkeley officials were forced to cancel a planned speech by conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos earlier this year after students rioted and caused $100,000 worth of damage and physically attacked college Republicans.
Students at Middlebury College last month attacked a professor escorting conservative scholar Charles Murray, sending her to the emergency room with a concussion. A California State University of Los Angeles professor called on students to respond to micro-aggressions (perceived verbal slights) with macro-aggressions, i.e. physical violence. And a University of Missouri professor was fired last year after asking for "muscle" to forcibly stop a student from exercising his First Amendment rights.
This bill would help stop these abuses and protect Colorado's students. It follows similar legislation to outlaw free speech zones and uphold the First Amendment in states like Virginia, North Dakota, and North Carolina.
The Steamboat Institute is committed to such free speech in both principle and practice. Its events, like its annual Freedom Conference, feature speakers who challenge the political status quo and could only occur in a country where free speech rights are sacrosanct.
In today's climate of growing partisanship, it's heartening to see politicians from both sides of the political spectrum coming together to support this founding principle. Hopefully, they can continue this momentum on others.
Jennifer Schubert-Akin is the CEO of the Steamboat Institute.