- - Monday, March 25, 2019


You probably saw footage a few weeks ago from UC Berkeley of a young student organizer whose politics someone found offensive. You likely watched in horror, as I did, as the student was assaulted without provocation. Many were shocked to see such an open assault on free speech on national TV.

You witnessed a beating. If you are like me, you were shocked. That is far from the worst of free speech suppression on campus. But it illustrates the state of free speech on campus.

TV news and iPhones cannot show you the speech suppressions that are just as prevalent, and just as insidious as the physical ones we are able to watch on our screens. TV does not show the millions of “micro-suppressions” of free speech that take place on nearly every campus every single day.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees an individual’s right to free expression. This includes the freedom for someone to practice the religion they choose, the freedom of the press to criticize and praise what they want, and most importantly, the freedom for someone to speak what they want to say. This guarantees that your ideas will be heard and debated — not be shut down by those who disagree with you, and who are too ill-prepared to speak out against you. The First Amendment is supposed to be codified within our national constitution, the supreme law of the land. How, then, do individual and institutionalized forces succeed in abridging the freedoms of those on public college campuses? Why do physical assaults against opposing thoughts seem to be increasing on college campuses? Our country seems to be at a freedom of speech cultural crossroads.

Everyone can see and understand a physical assault to suppress speech. It is quickly condemned. The Berkeley police arrested and charged the alleged assailant. This was largely due to video evidence. Our cultural reaction was due to video evidence as well.

The student victims of more subtle free speech suppression on campus have no such recourse. Free speech is lost in the papers not written, the questions not asked, and the comments withheld because of fear of retribution. If you think I am exaggerating, check it out on your own: You will find numerous instances on Utah campuses where free speech has been denied or suppressed. The more I investigated the issue, the more I heard from demoralized students, desperate professors and frightened parents.

The principles of the First Amendment must be protected. Our public college campuses are home to the next generation of America’s leaders, and First Amendment principles must be upheld there. That’s why I advanced a bill in Utah to explicitly codify these principles into state law.

My concern toward academic free speech in Utah started with the rights of students being restricted at Dixie State University in 2015, when they were unable to peacefully hand out fliers because the university said they disliked national political figures. It’s also why I continued to fight even in the face of institutionalized opposition from Utah’s higher educational lobbying effort. Unfortunately, my colleagues in the Utah Senate seemed to have surrendered their beliefs in First Amendment principles when they decided to vote down my bill.

My bill — UT HB 158, The Higher Education Student Speech Rights Act — would be a force fighting against the growing cultural sentiment that shouts down instead of debate. As Utah law, it would dismantle college campus speech codes, would allow plaintiffs the benefits of state courts instead of federal courts, and it would allow transparency and understanding for how Utah’s public colleges deal with free speech on campus.

Campus speech codes chill the expression of young Americans in college who are just beginning to understand the ideas they hold. College students should have their ideas challenged — they shouldn’t be in an environment with a one-size-fits-all approach to ideas.

First Amendment violations in Utah are dealt with on the federal level. But federal courts are bloated and take a long time to reach outcomes. College students are there for four years (or sometimes even less): A speedy trial is extremely important. My bill would have state courts hear campus free speech plaintiffs.

My bill would also work to move free speech back to a position of cultural importance on public college campuses. It requires policies on free speech to be posted publicly in the student handbook and on the website. Most importantly, the bill weaves free speech into the college orientation.

The president’s recent issuance of an executive order protecting First Amendment rights on campus is a welcome development. It shows clearly why there is much more to be done by state legislators, who are closest to the people, and who control higher education funding and governance.

Iron sharpens iron: Good ideas become the best ideas when they match up against opposing ideas. Without this, the culture of debate — the free market of ideas— on public campuses switches to a prescriptive, monolithic approach to thought. Today’s college campus should mirror the Socratic method. Whether assaults on free speech are physical or suppressed, this is only a prelude to the elimination of free thought.

• Kim Coleman, a state representative for Utah, is the primary sponsor of the Higher Education Student Speech Rights bill.

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