Campus free speech bill introduced in House of Representatives

December 18, 2018

Last week, outgoing Rep. Dave Brat introduced H.R. 7229 in the U.S. House of Representatives. Called the “Student Rights Act of 2018,” if enacted, the bill would provide important protections for student speech rights on campus.

First, the bill would prohibit the maintenance of so-called “free speech zones” at public institutions of higher education nationwide. Specifically, it would prohibit institutions of higher education from quarantining speech to misleadingly labeled areas. This would positively affect the expressive rights of approximately 800,000 students currently restricted by such policies at the schools FIRE rated in our Spotlight on Speech Codes 2019 report.

The bill further reaffirms that expressive activities such as “peacefully assembling, protesting, or speaking” are constitutionally protected forms of speech. This includes, but is not limited to, distributing literature, carrying a sign, or circulating a petition. In accordance with decades of legal precedence, public universities generally may restrict speech in public outdoor areas of campus only through reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions that are viewpoint-neutral and leave open ample alternative channels for communication.

The bill also ensures that any individuals, including enrolled students, faculty, other employees, and their invited guests, have the right to speak on campus. Included amongst these assurances is the prohibition of security fees based on the content of the speech of the individual speaker or the hosting student organization.

Additionally, H.R. 7229 requires institutions to develop written policies that are publicly accessible on the institution’s website guaranteeing free speech, assembly, and association in a manner that is consistent with the First Amendment. Furthermore, universities must include a statement that the institution’s role is not to shield individuals from “ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive,” language borrowed from the “Chicago Statement.”

Helpfully, the Student Rights Act of 2018 would provide a cause of action for affected parties. Complainants may bring action in federal court to enjoin a violation of the statute to recover compensatory damages, reasonable court costs, and reasonable attorney fees.

FIRE is pleased to see Congress taking steps to defend campus free speech and we look forward to assisting any member of Congress interested in tackling these issues next session.