SALT LAKE CITY – After passing both the Utah House and Senate by overwhelming margins, a bill to protect free speech on Utah higher education campuses is now awaiting a signature from Gov. Spencer Cox.
“It’s one of the things that we worked on this session that I’m most proud of,” said Rep. Casey Snider, R-District 5.
That proposal is House Bill 159, entitled “Higher Education Speech,” which was introduced by Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-District 42.
The goal of the pending statute is to set a standard all state universities can follow to ensure free speech is respected on campus while also protecting students from legitimate discriminatory harassment.
“Broad and ambiguous anti-harassment policies are one of the most common ways universities censor free speech,” according to state Sen. Scott Sandall, R- District 17. “While higher education institutions are legally and morally responsible for addressing student harassment, they also have a constitutional obligation to do so without infringing on students’ free speech rights.”
At issue in HB 159 and on college campuses nationwide is the blurry line between speech that constitutes verbal harassment and speech that merely expresses a dissenting opinion, however disagreeable it might be.
Many conservatives believe that the liberal viewpoints of collegiate professors and administrators have become so dominant that higher education has become a process of indoctrination rather than learning.
Rep. Dan Johnson, R-District 4, a retired educator himself, acknowledges that there is some basis for that suspicion.
“In our elementary and secondary level public schools,” Johnson observed during a recent virtual town hall hosted by the Cache County GOP, “we have a lot of standards, goals for things that get taught, assessment measures, reporting protocols, feedback systems and oversight.
“But when we get to collegiate level … (a teacher’s agenda) can go pretty far in one direction or another and there’s not much you can do about it.”
But professors’ attitudes are not the only factors influencing intellectual conformity on college campuses. Heightened levels of student sensitivities also play a role in stifling free speech nowadays.
So-called “safe spaces” began to be designated on university campuses decades ago to promote free speech by encouraging students and faculty to take academic risks and engage in uncomfortable intellectual discussions.
More recently, however, students have demanded that such safe spaces become areas in which they are sheltered from opinions that differ from their own.
The spread of “woke culture” on college campuses has also curtailed free speech, with students often trading charges about perceived microaggressions.
The University of Denver defines microaggressions as “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”
In an abundance of caution, many institutions of higher learning are now considering student complaints about such micro-aggressions to constitute punishable discriminatory harassment, an attitude that tends to limit freedom of expression on campus.
In the Utah Legislature, however, HB 159 attempts to temper over-reaction to legitimate free speech by defining discriminatory harassment as “unwelcome student-on-student speech …that discriminates under federal or state law … or is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it undermines and distracts from a student’s educational experience …”
The pending statute also prohibits higher education institutions from sanctioning or disciplining any acts of speech that do not rise to the level of that definition.
Like most of his colleagues in the Legislature, Snider thinks that HB 159 is a significant step in the right direction toward protecting freedom of expression on Utah college campuses.
The proposal passed the Utah House by a 60-to-11 vote in early February and was later endorsed by the Senate with a 26-to-3 vote.
“I don’t support indoctrination,” Snider said. “I don’t support a harsh ‘this is the only way for you to think’ mindset.
“I think it’s a good idea in college to be exposed to a variety of opinions and be able to make up your own mind … I hope that our universities are the type of places where a variety of ideas can flourish. But it’s even more critical to ensure that an alternative or contrary idea is protected.”