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Congressional resolution urges colleges to end use of ‘free speech zones’

By May 3, 2017

This afternoon, Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee introduced a bipartisan resolution to pressure colleges and universities to end the use of misleadingly labeled “free speech zones.” The resolution is co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. Rick W. Allen of Georgia, Todd Rokita of Indiana, Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin, Jason Lewis of Minnesota, Bradley Byrne of Alabama, and Jamie Raskin of Maryland.

House Resolution 307 cites FIRE’s research to demonstrate that the free exchange of ideas is threatened at colleges and universities across the country:

Whereas despite the clarity of the applicable legal precedent and the vital importance of protecting our Nation’s public colleges as true ‘‘marketplaces of ideas,’’ the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has found that roughly 1 in 10 of America’s top colleges and universities quarantine student expression to so-called ‘‘free speech zones,’’ that more than 20 speakers were disinvited from speaking on campuses in 2016, and survey of 449 schools found that almost 40 percent maintain severely restrictive speech codes that clearly and substantially prohibit constitutionally protected speech.

Roe’s resolution also references FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project lawsuits against the University of Hawaii at Hilo, Blinn College in Texas, and Los Angeles Pierce College to demonstrate that students across the country and from across the political spectrum have had their speech stifled by restrictive free speech zone policies.

“Free speech zones and restrictive speech codes are inherently at odds with the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution,” the resolution concludes, urging colleges to “recommit themselves to protecting the free and open exchange of ideas.”

FIRE is thrilled to see Congress considering a resolution that would pressure institutions of higher education to better protect student speech rights.

States such as Virginia, Missouri, Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, and Utah have all passed legislation to end the use of free speech zones at public colleges within their states, and similar bills are pending in California (Constitutional Amendment 14)(SB. 472), Louisiana, Michigan (S. 349)(S. 350), New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.

We hope the congressional bill garners strong bipartisan support, persuades more colleges and universities to abandon restrictive speech codes, and encourages lawmakers to enact additional legislation to end the quarantining of speech at our nation’s public universities.