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Conservative, Libertarian Groups Propose Campus Free Speech Bill

February 1, 2017
 
 

Several conservative and libertarian organizations are urging state lawmakers to adopt legislation that aims to "restore and protect freedom of thought and expression" on college campuses. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that launched a new education policy center last week, promoted the proposed state-level law at panel discussion Tuesday. 

The "model bill," called the Campus Free Speech Act, was written by the Goldwater Institute, a libertarian think tank, and Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The proposed legislation would prevent public colleges and universities from disinviting controversial speakers, require institutions to abolish speech codes and "free speech zones," and require colleges to publish a formal statement affirming that its "primary function is the discovery, improvement, transmission, and dissemination of knowledge by means of research, teaching, discussion, and debate."

In addition, the proposed bill would instruct institutions "to strive to remain neutral, as an institution, on the public policy controversies of the day." Jim Manley, senior attorney at the Goldwater Institute and co-author of the Campus Free Speech Act, said this piece of the legislation would not be mandatory, however, and wouldn't prohibit institutions from taking strong positions in unusual circumstances, such as the wide condemnation seen in response to the Trump administration's executive order to ban immigrants and nonimmigrant visitors from seven countries, which are majority Muslim, from entering the United States.

"This bill wouldn't have prohibited universities from taking positions," he said. "The reason that's in the bill is because universities are funded by taxpayers, and they are big communities with lots of opinions."

The model legislation also states that colleges should create disciplinary policies for students "who interfere with the free expression of others" on campus. "When protestors disrupt visiting speakers, or break in on meetings to take them over and list demands, administrators look the other way," a report describing the bill stated. "Students have come to take it for granted they will face no discipline for such disruptions."

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said it supported the proposed law, but cautioned against conflating protests which seek to silence other speakers and those which aim to grab the attention of administrators.

"I think issuing demands is free speech, and silencing others isn't free speech at all," Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at FIRE, said. "A heckler's veto is not free speech." 

Manley, of the Goldwater Institute, said the institute has heard from half a dozen state lawmakers who are interested in introducing the bill. During Tuesday's panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation, Kurtz, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said the proposed state-level law was created in response to the activism that occurred on several college campuses in 2015.

"Interrupting, assaulting or shouting down speakers is tyranny, pure and simple," he said. 

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