Humphrey: No bogey men in campus free speech bill

Author: John Tomasic - February 10, 2017 - Updated: February 10, 2017

Free Speech Movement Cafe, University of California Berkeley. (barryleiba via Flickr)
Free Speech Movement Cafe, University of California Berkeley. (barryleiba via Flickr)

State Rep. Stephen Humphrey is feeling optimistic that Democrats and liberal interest groups will join with Republicans and conservative interest groups to support the campus free speech bill he is sponsoring this year with Sen. Tim Neville.

“I haven’t counted any votes yet, but I haven’t heard anyone say they have major concerns,” Humphrey said in an interview on Wednesday. “I think once people heard what the bill was really about, they were like, ‘Well, there are no bogey men in the bill.’ They found out it’s really about free speech and not restricting it to some postage stamp area in a corner of the campus, which I think we can all agree is a good idea.”

The bill, SB 62, contains free speech and free assembly protections on college campuses, which is a factual but benign way to describe the bill. It’s also a bill that taps into a national cultural battle that has seen conservative cable news pundits clash with university students and administrators in recent years.

The argument, made mostly on the right, is that campuses have gone too far in attempting to combat abuses tied to the uneven power dynamics of U.S. society by encouraging communication that lifts up members of university communities, including members of long-persecuted or marginalized minority groups, and by also limiting speech that offends or degrades, whether intentionally or not.

But the bill won unanimous support in the upper chamber’s education committee last week, which means it’s likely to pass easily through the Republican-controlled Senate in the coming days.

Democratic members of the Senate committee came into the hearing wary and mostly opposed to the bill. The witnesses Neville, a Republican from Littleton, lined up to testify in favor of it gave the Democrats further pause. Witnesses included a lawyer from the social-conservative legal group Alliance Defending Freedom and members of conservative campus organizations, including a student representative of a pro-life group at Colorado State University.

But in the end, the Democrats all threw in with Neville and a representative of the Colorado ACLU, who argued that the best remedy against ugly or wrong or otherwise offensive speech is more speech, and that the state’s public campuses would benefit from uniform rules around speech and assembly.

For now, it’s just Humphrey, a conservative Republican from Severance, and a string of like-minded Republicans who have signed on to co-sponsor the bill in the House.

“We didn’t have the time to really shop it around initially and line up a lot of sponsors,” Humphrey said. “I think when they saw the title, people wanted to go talk to their stakeholders and check in first. But now that the bill is out of the Senate hearing — and it came out the way it did — I think a lot of initial opposition might fall away. It’s got a real civil libertarian feel to it.”

Is Humphrey going to broaden the witness list when he brings it to one of the House Democratic-controlled committees?

“We’re happy to have anyone [testify] who supports the bill,” he said. “We don’t see it as a righty or lefty bill, which is the fun thing about it. You really get some good dialogue and hear people’s concerns.

“You hear people say, ‘Well, this isn’t going to cause harm and it promotes free speech on campus’ — which, you know, crazy idea, right?”

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

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