Campus free speech legislation reintroduced in Congress

March 29, 2019

On March 11, Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida introduced legislation to protect free speech on college campuses. The bill, HR 1672, known as the “Free Right to Expression in Education Act” (FREE Act), would prohibit misleadingly labeled “free speech zones” across American public colleges and universities. If enacted, this bill would secure First Amendment rights for millions of public university students across the country. Last year, Sen. Orrin Hatch introduced the bill’s predecessor before his retirement.

The FREE 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 sensibly allows institutions to maintain “reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions on an expressive activity in an outdoor area of the institution’s campus” provided that those restrictions are “narrowly tailored to serve a significant institutional interest,” “based on published, content-neutral, and viewpoint-neutral criteria,” and leave “open ample alternative channels for communication.”

Courts have used those criteria to evaluate and strike down restrictive campus “free speech zones.”

Out of 466 colleges and universities FIRE surveyed across the country, 28.5 percent severely restrict speech, while another 61.2 percent fall short of their legal mandate. Many of these restrictive policies quarantine speech to corners of campus.

FIRE has long advocated for the abolition of so-called “free speech zones” on college campuses. Throughout the years we have noted that these zones have been used to stifle speech from across the political spectrum, and even apolitical speech too. FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project has brought suits against colleges and universities maintaining these zones, 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 in Texas; 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.

Virginia, Missouri, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Kentucky, and Florida have already passed legislation against student speech relegation to quarantine zones. And North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, South Dakota, and Iowa outlawed their usage in a more comprehensive legislation protecting student expression.

FIRE is thrilled to see this legislation introduced again in Congress. We look forward to supporting it and we’re eager to discuss the merits of the bill with legislators on both sides of the aisle.