Colorado passes law banning “free speech zones” on public campuses
“An Act Concerning the Right to Free Speech on Campuses of Public Institutions of Higher Education” was passed unanimously by both chambers of Colorado’s state legislature and signed into law by the governor in April 2017. This law abolished “free speech zones” on the campuses of public colleges and universities.
State Senator Tim Neville (R) is elected from Senate District 16, which contains portions of Boulder, Denver, Gilpin and Jefferson Counties. Neville is an original sponsor of the legislation. He wrote an opinion piece in The Denver Post titled “Free speech should not be zoned,” in which he argued that institutions of higher education have recently “struggle[d] with thoughtful debate, and instead put forth a litany of criteria for students to exercise their rights to speech, the most egregious of which requires students to limit their opinions to ‘free speech zones.’ These zones are contrary to the very missions of universities.”
State Representative Jeff Bridges (D) is elected from House District 3, which contains a portion of Arapahoe County. Bridges is also an original sponsor of the legislation. At a committee hearing, Bridges said, “We’ve become too comfortable these days getting our news from people we already agree with,” the Post reports. Bridges continued, “We silence those we disagree with either by tuning them out or by marginalizing them.”
State Representative Stephen Humphrey (R) is elected from House District 48, which contains a portion of Weld County. Humphrey too is an original sponsor of the legislation. In an interview with Colorado Politics, he said “I think once people heard what the bill was really about, they were like, ‘Well, there are no bogey men in the bill.’ They found out it’s really about free speech and not restricting it to some postage stamp area in a corner of the campus, which I think we can all agree is a good idea.”
Governor John Hickenlooper (D) signed the legislation into law on April 4, 2017.
The term “Free Speech zone” typically refers to designated areas on a college or university campus that are available for students to express their thoughts freely. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), “Roughly 1 in 6 of America’s top colleges and universities have free speech zones.” Many free speech advocacy organizations, including FIRE, have criticized these zones for, in effect, restricting the ability of students to exercise their First Amendment rights elsewhere on campus.
The Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, along with FIRE, supported the bill. Many First Amendment advocates expect this bill to increase Free Speech on Colorado campuses by expanding the opportunities for students to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to its passage, numerous Colorado colleges and universities utilized Free Speech zones. For example, “Colorado State University–Pueblo requires demonstrators to apply for permission to gather three days in advance, without publishing the criteria by which those applications will be evaluated,” according to FIRE. Moreover, “the University of Colorado Boulder designates only one location on campus where students can assemble to exercise their free speech rights without obtaining advance permission, and requires 10 days’ notice for all other outdoor areas on campus.”
In addition to abolishing Free Speech zones at public colleges and universities, this law also “allow[s] students to sue — and recover attorneys’ fees and court costs, though not damages — if they feel their rights have been violated,” the Post reports. While the law allows administrators to restrict “the time, place, and manner,” of expression, according to The Denver Channel, the restrictions must be “reasonable,” “justified without reference to the content of the speech,” and “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” Administrators must also “leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information or message.”
SB 62 won unanimous passage in both chambers of Colorado’s legislature. A compromise between Republicans and Democrats in the state senate resulted in the addition of voter registration drives to a list of protected expressions on campus, Colorado Public Radio reports.
As legislators considered the bill, students testified about their experience with Free Speech zones. Juan Caro, a student at Colorado State University and a member of Young Americans for Liberty, told legislators that “College campuses are cradling students from different opinions that they don’t agree with and we’re really not preparing students for the real world,” the Post reports.
While university administrators were initially skeptical about SB 62, Patrick O’Rourke, a lawyer for the University of Colorado Board of Regents, testified in support of the legislation, The Complete Colorado reports. Responding to a legislator’s question about whether this bill might increase hate speech, O’Rourke said, “Sometimes free speech is more than just hurt feelings. But the Constitution grants a very broad realm of constitutional protection. It’s only when free speech is inciting violence that it becomes unprotected. We view our obligation as not to silence anybody … but to make sure if somebody is going to speak, even if it is controversial, even if some would say the speech is hateful, that it gets to exist, but we want to make sure we’re maintaining the safety and integrity of the environment.”
Although this legislation passed both legislative chambers without opposition, some Colorado students reacted negatively to the change of policy. “I’d much more prefer to have it in a designated area,” one University of Colorado, Colorado Springs student told News Channel 13. “I mean if you’re walking to class now, you might have to walk through protests potentially.” Additionally, a Colorado State University student told the Collegian, “You no longer have an area you can avoid to not hear hate speech disguised as free speech. Marginalized people will have a voice, but people who have dominant identities will be able to push their privilege further. Now policing of campus is going to be a lot harder in terms of hate speech.”
Governor Signed Legislation Into Law
Governor John Hickenlooper signed this legislation into law on April 4, 2017 without comment, rendering the law effective immediately.
Prepared by Will Haskell ‘18
August 22, 2017