Utah State Legislature – HB 54 – 2017

Salt Lake City, Utah

House Bill 54, a law banning Free Speech Zones on the campuses of Utah’s public colleges and universities, was signed into law by Governor Gary Herbert on March 28, 2017. This legislation is one of four bills introduced by a Republican lawmaker to protect Free Speech on campus. The other bills, which addressed topics such as academic freedom and a student’s right to counsel, did not advance through the legislature.

Key Figures

State Representative Kim Coleman, a Republican, is the legislation’s lead sponsor. Coleman, who has a daughter attending a public university, represents a district in central Utah. Her bill was cosponsored by 12 Republican lawmakers in the Utah House of Representatives. Coleman believes that Utah’s public colleges and universities are suppressing Free Speech. “With increased turmoil on campuses at many of our nation’s institutions of higher education, we need to protect the speech of all our students, while protecting students from harassment and intimidation,” Coleman told The Daily Universe, a campus publication associated with Brigham Young University. This legislation “simply affirms many Supreme Court rulings that government property is a free speech area,” Coleman continued. On her campaign website, Coleman claims that “the First Amendment’s prohibition on government abridging the freedom of speech is being defied on 50% of our nation’s public campuses.”

Further Details

HB 54 protects students’ rights to gather peacefully in outdoor areas on campus. While the law permits college and university administrators to impose some time, place and manner restrictions on student speech, it requires that these restrictions be “narrowly tailored to serve a significant institutional interest.” Moreover, speech restrictions must be “based on published, content-neutral and viewpoint-neutral criteria.” Finally, the legislation creates a cause of action, allowing the Attorney General or any impacted students to sue a college or university for violating Free Speech rights.

By a vote of 71-0, HB 54 received unanimous support within the House of Representatives. The bill then advanced to the Senate, where it earned near unanimous support by a vote of 28-1.

HB 54 was at least partially inspired by recent Free Speech incidents at public colleges and universities in Utah. In 2015, three students at Dixie State University in St. George were prevented from displaying satirical portraits of political figures on campus. “It’s crazy, it’s frustrating,” Coleman told The Salt Lake Tribune, “to think that in 2015, that a public university would limit political speech.”

In another 2015 incident, campus police officers at Utah State University told students to remove anti-abortion messages they had drawn in chalk on campus walkways. A university spokesman later apologized for the incident and pledged that administrators would re-evaluate policies concerning student speech, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. That same year, campus police officers at Utah Valley University removed a political sign concerning gay rights since the sign did not receive prior approval from the administration, according to the UVU Review, a campus publication.

HB 54 was criticized by some Free Speech advocates for not doing enough to protect student speech. Fiorella Vasquez, president of the Young Americans for Liberty Foundation at the University of Utah, points to a Utah Valley University policy that encourages professors to report student speech in classrooms that is “too inappropriate, loud, or argumentative.” Vasquez wrote in The Salt Lake Tribune that HB 54 provides no protections to student speech that occurs inside the classroom.

Outcome

Legislation signed into law on March 28th, 2017

Governor Gary Herbert, a Republican, signed this legislation after it received bipartisan approval in Utah’s House of Representatives and Senate.

Coleman’s other Free Speech legislation not enacted

Representative Coleman’s other Free Speech bills, relating to anti-harassment regulations (HB 103), a student’s right to counsel (HB 284), and academic freedom (HB 334) did not move forward within the state legislature.

External References:

HB 54

Kim Coleman, Utah House of Representatives

Commentary: Is free speech under attack at Utah colleges?, The Salt Lake Tribune

Utah lawmaker takes aim at campus free-speech rules, The Salt Lake Tribune

LDS Handbook Policy Has Real-Life Affect on Students, UVU Review

Campus Free Speech Amendments bill in committee, The Daily Universe

Bills aim to free up free speech on Utah college campuses, The Salt Lake Tribune

Utah college apologizes after students were told to erase anti-abortion messages, The Salt Lake Tribune

Prepared by Will Haskell ‘18

December 1, 2017