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Colorado campus free speech bill signed into law (with high marks for bipartisan support)

Author: John Tomasic - April 4, 2017 - Updated: April 4, 2017

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Replicas of Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, left, and Marco Rubio face off in the free speech zone on the campus of the University of Colorado before the October 2015 Republican presidential debate in Boulder, Colo. (AP)
Replicas of Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, left, and Marco Rubio face off in the free speech zone on the campus of the University of Colorado before the October 2015 Republican presidential debate in Boulder, Colo. (AP)

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on Tuesday signed a state campus free speech bill passed with wide bipartisan support in both chambers of the Legislature this year.

“Once we limit free speech to a zone, we indicate to our students that free speech does not exist anywhere beyond that zone,” state Sen. Tim Neville, a Littleton Republican, said at the bill signing ceremony.

At a brief press conference beforehand, Neville goofed with House sponsors Stephen Humphrey, an Eaton Republican, and Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat. The men stood in a mock free speech zone roped off from reporters and covered their eyes, mouths and ears, like “see no, speak no, hear no evil” monkeys.

Neville is a libertarian-leaning conservative lawmaker, a top small-government and gun-rights champion in Denver. His campus free speech Senate Bill 62 dovetailed with legislation introduced in capitols around the country by Republican lawmakers motivated in part by media coverage of growing campus rules and regulations limiting expression — and particularly the expression of conservative student groups and speakers.

In recent years, model campus free speech bills have been drafted by the conservative Goldwater Institute and pushed by the conservative Heritage Foundation. The bills fire up Republican lawmakers but generally put Democratic lawmakers on guard.

It was no surprise, given the context, that committee hearings for the Colorado bill featured witness lists weighted heavily to the right, often including lawyers and students from religious-freedom and pro-life groups.

But Neville won over Democrats. With backing from the state chapter of the ACLU, he argued as a practical matter that patchwork campus speech regulations across the state were confusing and inadequate. As a theoretical and constitutional matter, he argued that hurtful or offensive or just plain wrong speech was still speech, no matter how distasteful; that college campuses are meant to be great spaces of debate; and that the best antidote to or even revenge against ugly and wrong speech is more speech.

Before the bill left the Senate, Neville acted on amendments proposed by Democrats and added protections for campus voter registration drives, which have been hobbled on some Colorado campuses by administrative restrictions. When the bill was taken up in the House, it sailed out onto the floor without a cloud on the horizon and passed with unanimous support.

Neville’s open approach to the topic and the receptivity on the part of Colorado Democrats made the difference.

In other states, campus free speech legislative efforts have stalled.

Even as Hickenlooper was signing the Colorado bill into law, news came from North Dakota that the state Senate voted down a campus free speech bill. Rep. Rick Becker, sponsor of the North Dakota bill, described it as a rejection of “political correctness gone crazy.” His pitch failed to persuade.

Lawmakers in Tennessee named their version of the legislation the “Milo Bill” after Milo Yiannopoulos, the provocative former Breitbart News editor. Later, after Yiannopoulos fell out of favor with conservatives for exercising free speech in support of pedophilia, Knoxville state Rep. Martin Daniel began calling his bill the “Thomas Jefferson Student Freedom of Expression Act.” The name change may not have worked. The last noted action on the bill saw it removed from an education committee calendar.

Campus free speech also made news in Washington on Tuesday.

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice heard testimony on “First Amendment Protections on Public College and University Campuses.”

john@coloradostatesman.com

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

John Tomasic is a senior political reporter for The Colorado Statesman covering the Colorado Legislature.


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