Legislation would prohibit private institutions from punishing students for speech or other communication
by Erin Julius
Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, on Tuesday went before the House Appropriations Committee to defend a bill he is sponsoring that is intended to protect students’ rights of free speech.
The bill is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the College Republicans and the College Democrats.
It would prohibit private colleges and universities from making or enforcing rules that subject students at the institution to disciplinary sanctions on the basis of conduct that is speech or other communication.
Institutions that qualify for Sellinger funding, which is state aid to assist students attending private schools, would be affected.
Student speech or other communication that would be protected outside the campus by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution or by the Maryland Constitution would be protected by the bill. Students would be able to bring civil actions if their institution made or enforced a rule prohibited by the measure.
Those institutions controlled by religious organizations would be exempt if their religious tenets were not consistent with the bill. Colleges and universities could still adopt rules preventing hate crimes, according to the bill.
Tina Bjarekull, president of the Maryland Independent College and University Association, testified against the bill. The presidents of all 17 member institutions are against it, she said.
The institutions already respect free speech rights, Bjarekull said.
Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., D-St. Mary’s, called the measure a “classic case of government overreach.”
“Of all delegates to put in a bill like this is, I’m almost shocked it’s coming from you,” Bohanan said to the conservative Shank.
The state distributes about $30 million to private institutions, Shank said. As state agents, public universities are bound by the First Amendment. Students at private schools that receive state funding should be afforded those same rights, Shank said.
Four students – three from Shank’s alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, and one from Loyola University – testified on behalf of the bill.
While no specific situation precipitated the bill, Shank was approached by the students last summer, he said. They had been working with Johns Hopkins about free speech issues on campus, Shank said.
The legislation is modeled after a similar measure recently adopted in California, Shank said.
Students believe they’re going to an institution where their rights will be valued, but find out they can be punished simply for saying something in public, said Evan Lazeroyitz, a Johns Hopkins senior from New Jersey.
“It’s about not punishing students for speaking out,” said Mike Esteve, a Loyola sophomore who knew a student disciplined for calling another student a “Cuban Communist” during a heated political discussion.
Due to a source’s error, the version of this story as published in the Wednesday, Feb. 24, print edition of The Herald-Mail and an earlier online version incorrectly stated that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) supports Del. Christopher B. Shank’s HB 677 protecting students’ rights of free speech.
FIRE does not endorse legislation.
The Herald-Mail apologizes for the mistake.