Bill to prohibit campus ‘free speech zones’ introduced in U.S. Senate

By February 9, 2018

On Wednesday, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah announced that he was introducing legislation to protect free speech on campus. The bill, called the “Free Right to Expression in Education Act,” would prohibit public institutions of higher education from quarantining free expression into small, misleadingly labeled “free speech zones” on their campuses. If enacted, the measure would free tens of thousands of public university students from these restrictive, unconstitutional zones.

The Free Right to Expression in Education Act states, in part:

Each public institution of higher education . . . may not prohibit . . . a person from freely engaging in noncommercial expressive activity in an outdoor area on the institution’s campus if the person’s conduct is lawful.

The bill would allow universities to “enforce reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions” on speech occurring in the open, outdoor areas of the public, but those restrictions would need to follow applicable standards set by the Supreme Court.

FIRE has long argued that public colleges and universities must — once and for all — abandon the use of so-called “free speech zones.” As we’ve noted through the years, free speech zones or other permitting schemes at colleges and universities have been used to stifle student speech from across the political spectrum. FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project has sponsored litigation or litigated several free speech zone cases, including on behalf of a student distributing animal rights literature at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona; a student advocating for Second Amendment rights at Blinn College; a student asking fellow students at Citrus College to sign a petition protesting the National Security Agency; and a Los Angeles Pierce College student handing out Spanish-language copies of the Constitution.

Colorado, Virginia, Missouri, Arizona, and Utah have already passed legislation banning public colleges and universities from relegating student expression to free speech zones, with North Carolina and Tennessee prohibiting their use in more comprehensive legislation protecting student expression.

The Free Right to Expression in Education Act’s introduction comes a few months after Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee introduced House Resolution 307, which is sponsored by both Republican and Democratic members of the House of Representatives. The resolution expresses “the sense of the House of Representatives” that “free speech zones and restrictive speech codes are inherently at odds with the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

FIRE is pleased to see this legislation introduced in the Senate, and we look forward to supporting it. Passing this bill would go a long way to extending free speech rights to college students nationwide. We are hopeful the bill will pass both chambers and be signed into law.