Free Speech Legislation Advances after Shapiro Speech in September

In September 2017, controversy erupted at the University of Utah over conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s impending campus visit. Several hundred students protested, urging U. administrators to cancel the speech.

In an effort to safeguard free speech rights on Utah campuses, Representative Kim Coleman (Republican – West Jordan) and Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) have teamed up to work on the issue. Coleman is running a bill while Dabakis is pushing a resolution. The latter was unanimously recommended Tuesday by the Senate Education Committee.

“With the guidance of Representative Coleman, I decided there’s only one way to do this. The Legislature ought to make clear to our university and college system that the principal is free speech,” said Dabakis. “I think we have a broad opportunity to actually set the First Amendment straight for some people that are in a difficult position.”

HB 116 – Student Civil Liberties Protection Act, sponsored by Coleman, requires each state institution of higher education to review current policies for direct effects on the civil liberties of students, and repeal or initiate rule-making proceedings for each policy that directly affects a student’s civil liberty. The bill also permits a student at a state institution of higher education to complain about school policy to the State Board of Regents. SCR 3 – Concurrent Resolution on the Importance of Civil Liberties for Students, sponsored by Dabakis, echoes the sentiment in HB 116 and calls on state institutions of higher education to defend student civil liberties and create a process for students to appeal school policies.

Brad Asay, president of the Utah chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, cautioned against the resolution due to concerns about advocacy organizations (specifically the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) using possible free speech violations to push their own agenda via lawsuits. “What is this going to open up? It’s almost to me as the camel’s nose getting stuck in the room, and what’s that going to lead to with subsequent legislation. It’s going to open up opportunities for organizations such as FIRE and other organizations that want to push their agendas,” said Asay.

“The quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., keeps going through my head: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ I’m puzzled as to why anyone would, especially an organization of teachers, would oppose the idea of free speech on campus,” said Senator Deidre Henderson (Republican – Spanish Fork).

SCR 3 now moves to the House. HB 116 is still in the House Rules Committee.

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