The debate over student free speech, campus safe zones and political correctness moved into the Colorado Capitol on Thursday and took a surprise turn when three Democrats joined with four Republicans on the Senate education committee to unanimously advance a campus free speech bill sponsored by arch conservative-libertarian Sen. Tim Neville.
“Elected officials have a duty to citizens to ensure their liberties remain intact,” said Neville in his closing remarks. “On campuses around the nation, students are too often prevented from exercising their rights to free expression.”
“[We all can agree ] a safe and constructive educational environment benefits everyone,” he told the committee. “But when a safe environment violates constitutional rights, it’s no longer safe.”
Senate Bill 62 contains free speech protections and free assembly protections.
The bill would prohibit public universities from “restricting a student’s constitutional right to speak in any way in a public forum, including speaking verbally, holding a sign, or distributing flyers or materials.” And would also prohibit them from imposing “unreasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of student speech that occurs in a public forum and is protected by the first amendment… Public institutions of higher education are prohibited from designating any area on campus as a free speech zone.”
Given recent cultural trends, where conservative media outlets and think tanks have targeted universities in an ongoing information and messaging war, it was unsurprising that Neville’s list of witnesses testifying in favor of the bill were overwhelmingly conservatives who felt campus safety, speech and assembly policies were stifling.
The line up included a lawyer from the social-conservative legal group Alliance Defending Freedom and student members of conservative campus organizations, including a representative of a student pro-life group at CSU.
Committee debate predictably hit on material ripped from the headlines, such as the campus speaking tour embarked on by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who drew large protests last week on a stop at the University of Colorado Boulder and days later protests that turned violent at the University of California Berkeley.
Debate also often turned on lines familiar to consumers of conservative media.
“The First Amendment doesn’t protect against hurt feelings,” said Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson.
Priola and other of the Republican members of the committee echoed sentiment embraced widely on the right that college campuses have gone too far in the effort to combat societal aggression and lopsided power dynamics by in part encouraging communication that lifts up members of the university community, including members of long-persecuted or marginalized minority groups.
Lost in much of the committee discussion, though, was the fact that liberal groups, too, have been lamenting the rise of Orwellian “free speech” protest zones — spaces cordoned off with fencing, set apart far from the action in order to contain dissent during presidential candidate debates, political party conventions, and at anti-war and the Occupy protests, for example.
Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, a former educator of 25 years, led arguments against the bill. She waved her own worn pocket copy of the Constitution in the air, arguing that the bill seemed redundant.
“We already have the protections of free speech, and I think [free speech] is prevailing on our campuses,” she said.
Todd recalled her experience as a college student in conservative Kansas during the politically raucous 1970s, where protests and speakers of all variety were a routine campus presence, she said.
“We had racial issues, SDS, Abbie Hoffman, all of the above, if you want a walk down memory lane,” she said, adding that she saw a similarly “wide variety of speakers” on college campuses in Colorado today. “We had the Republican presidential primary debate at CU Boulder,” she noted.
It was clear as the hearing wore on, though, that the Democrats were waffling, an odd spectacle given the line up of witnesses.
“I guess I would have liked to see some pro-choice students speak,” said Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs.
Neville, a Littleton Republican, put up his hands and blurted out something short that indicated he had tried but failed to bring a wider variety of supporters.
But Denise Maes, a Colorado ACLU lawyer, a regular at the Capitol and a powerful advocate for the group’s causes, aimed her arguments at the Democrats and seemed to tip the balance.
“This bill does not protect hate speech,” she said, alleviating one large concern.
She also said that free expression is a complex constitutional concept and that there remains much gray area around it in the law. State statutes like Neville’s bill can fill gaps.
“The beauty of state laws is that they’re more specific… It’s so much easier than having to pore over centuries of case law.”
Maes also said that the remedy to disagreeable, wrong, hurtful speech is more speech. Neville agreed, saying that the best way to head off discriminatory policy is to encourage bad ideas to surface, to not allow them to go underground and fester, but to meet them in the public square and defeat them.
“More speech is always the best revenge,” said Maes.
Before the vote, Todd shook her head and said, “I was going to be a no on this bill.”
Merrifield stretched his lips in a tentative expression. “I’m voting for this bill — for now,” he said, looking even in the moment as if the words had surprised him.
Neville’s bill now heads to the Senate Floor for debate.
“This is a weird year. This is a really weird year,” committee Chair Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs,” said staring straight ahead as he walked out the door of the committee room and down the hall.