Utah House bill seeks to protect student free speech, civil liberties

Friday , January 26, 2018 - 5:15 AM1 comment

SERGIO MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN/Standard-Examiner Staff

A bill introduced in the Utah House of Representatives is aimed at protecting higher education civil liberties and creating a process for students to demand changes to policies.

The Student Civil Liberties Protection Act, or House Bill 116, was first introduced to the House Administrative Rules Review Committee on Monday, Jan. 22, by state Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan.

The bill creates the foundation for a rule-making process in which public colleges and universities “review each current policy for direct effects on the civil liberties of students; and repeal or initiate rule-making proceedings for each policy that directly affects a student’s civil liberty.”

Coleman said she found there are policies in public colleges and universities that are inconsistent with the state’s civil liberties.

“We found in the law that there are three entities exempt from the rule-making process: prisons, public mental health institutions and higher education,” Coleman said. “What do the three have in common, we can’t figure out — but they are exempt.”

The bill will allow a student at a state university or college to submit a complaint about school policy directly to the Utah State Board of Regents. The board then will be required to establish a complaint process and report the incidents annually to the state’s administrative rules review committee.

“Higher education should be subject to rule-making, just for civil liberties,” Coleman said.

In 2015, a group of students at Dixie State University sued the institution saying the school violated their free speech rights after the school refused to allow the students to post flyers on campus about former presidents Barack Obama and President George W. Bush. The images of the former presidents and Cuban revolutionary leader Ché Guevara were satirical.

According to news reports, the students also set up an event where a “free speech wall” was put in place. The students claimed the school sent them to a part of campus that receives significantly less foot traffic.

Dixie State paid the students $50,000 as part of a settlement.

Coleman said that real-case scenario was a catalyst behind the bill.

State Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, is the chief sponsor of a concurrent resolution “on the importance of civil liberties for students.” The resolution passed the Senate Education Committee 6-0 on Tuesday, Jan. 23, and the Senate second reading on Thursday, Jan. 25, without opposition.

“There’s the problem in higher education in the state that our universities and colleges each are looking into different policies on who should be allowed to speak,” Dabakis said. “Most of them say, ‘If a group of students invite someone to speak, they should be allowed to bring them in.’”

Dabakis said the resolution and the bill sends a message to students to “get passionate about issues.”

“Repugnant people have a right to speak,” Dabakis said. “It’s a balance between a hostile environment and civil liberties and how we curtail offensive speech.”

As part of the complaint process, the bill requires the Board of Education to establish a procedure where students may submit a complaint against a public college or university alleging a policy violates at least one civil right.

If the board determines the complaint was made in “good faith,” it moves forward. Complaints deemed made in “bad faith” will be dismissed.

The wording makes the bill flawed, Utah Legal Clinic Managing Attorney Angela Elmore said.

For Elmore, the term “good faith” can be problematic when implemented as part of a bill or law.

“I’ve never heard that sort of a standard,” Elmore said.

She said the bill is so broad it could reverse the civil liberties of other students.

“We’ve seen the Republicans and the LDS Church give people some type of protections to discriminate themselves,” Elmore said. “(The bill) can be implemented either way, which is a little scary.”

For Coleman, the Republican representative who introduced the bill, the language used in the bill is intended to make the complaint process easier for students.

“‘Good faith’ is a very low bar,” Coleman said. “Where speech is legal and lawful, the university needs to protect (it).”

When asked about some speech creating a hostile environment in universities, Coleman said the term “hostile environment” has “its own legal conditions.”

“Speech is free but some speech are not protected,” Coleman said.

The bill also has the support from the Utah System of Higher Education.

“Actively utilizing one’s civil liberties is an essential part of a college student’s experience,” Dave Buhler, commissioner of higher education, said in an email. “We’re supportive of this bill, which reaffirms higher education’s role in upholding these important rights.”

Contact education reporter Sergio Martínez-Beltrán at smartinezbeltran@standard.net or 801-625-4274. Follow him on Twitter @SergioMarBel and like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/STANDARDEXSergio.

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