New law protects free speech rights on campus

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill April 4 aimed at protecting free speech rights at public institutions. Senate Bill 62, sponsored by Republican legislators Sen. Tim Neville and Rep. Stephen Murphy, along with Democratic Rep. Jeff Bridges, passed the House unanimously, 64-0, in late March.

Free Speech

Senator Tim Neville, left, State Representative Stephen Humphrey and Representative Jeff Bridges stand together for a photo before signing a bill to ensure the free exchange of ideas on a college campus at the state capitol on April 4. Photo by Carl Glenn Payne • cpayne16@msudenver.edu

The new law will prohibit public institutions, such as universities, from restricting a student’s ability to exercise their First Amendment rights to a “free speech zone.” Without the law, schools would have been able to limit freedom of expression to specific areas on campus, often requiring prior approval and a permit for the privilege.

The law reinforces basic First Amendment rights, such as freedom of verbal or written expression as long as said expression does not incite harm. The issue has entered the public eye recently, specifically in California, where Kevin Shaw filed a lawsuit against his school, Pierce College. Shaw was handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution to other students when he was stopped by a school official. He was told that he could pass out the copies only within a designated area and would need a permit for the activity.

“Why should the school be able to set which groups are allowed to speak, and who is allowed their First Amendment rights,” Shaw said in a quote taken from the Portland Press Herald.

Dr. Richard Moeller, a professor in MSU Denver’s political science department, echoed Shaw’s sentiment. “Especially if it’s political speech, it should be free and open, and people should be able to hear it,” Moeller said. He also stressed the importance of looking at the wording of the law to make sure that its true intentions match how it’s being portrayed. “The devil’s in the details,” he said.

The law does not protect actions that would disrupt a university’s core function–to teach students. “If someone wanted to stand up and walk out of a classroom, great, go for it,” Bridges said.

While opponents may argue that actions such as the 2014 Jefferson County student walkouts and protests are important, Bridges acknowledged these arguments, but said, “There probably will be consequences for that, but often times there are consequences for doing the right thing.”

Because the bill was introduced in the Republican-controlled Senate, it was expected to face an uphill battle with respect to today’s partisan political climate. When the bill reached the House floor, it received unanimous, bipartisan support.

It didn’t surprise everyone, however. Moeller acknowledged that Hickenlooper is well-liked not only by Democrats, his own party, but also by Republicans, citing Hickenlooper’s belief in the free market and his having a business background. This belief was reaffirmed by Neville. “Bipartisan support on the bill actually made it better as it went through the processes,” he said. “This is almost like a small cross-section of what government should be on its best days, so I think it’s very exciting that way.”

Now that the bill has been signed into law, students in Colorado won’t find themselves in a heated legal battle against their school like Shaw is.

“We showed there’s a way to find common ground on core, Colorado, American values,” Humphrey said.

While only five states have passed laws restricting free speech zones, the hope remains that other states and eventually the country will follow. Moeller sees the law as a fundamental right, saying, “Speech never really hurt anyone.”

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