Utah lawmaker takes aim at campus free-speech rules

Higher education • GOP Rep. Kim Coleman fears push for civility infringes on rights.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, silenced the House chamber on Tuesday as she told of being attacked when she was a young woman. Allowing women to protect themselves from attempted rape became the main argument for a bill to allow residents as young as 18 to carry concealed weapons.

College and university policies aimed at promoting civility are overly subjective and could inappropriately limit free speech, a Utah lawmaker told colleagues on Thursday.

National news is full of "campus craziness" stories, Rep. Kim Coleman said, the result of recent trends in higher education that attempt to tamp down insulting, offensive or alternative viewpoints.

"We have campus explosions all over this country," Coleman, R-West Jordan, said. "Both students who want to shut down speech and students who are fighting to have their speech rights recognized."

Coleman told members of the Utah Legislature's Administrative Rules Review Committee she plans to convene a working group that will review free speech policies at Utah's college and universities. The group will present its findings to the committee during summer interim meetings, she said, with the potential for new legislation next year aimed at bolstering the First Amendment rights of students and campus faculty.

"We're not defining which words are offensive," Coleman said of her plans. "We're getting the government out of the role of choosing what things it feels are offensive."

While Utah's campuses have not seen large-scale or violent disruptions such as the recent incidents at University of California, Berkeley or Vermont's Middlebury College, Coleman said the Beehive State is not immune to constitutional challenges.

She gave the example of rules at Utah State University, which require students to be courteous and refrain from teasing, ridicule and insults. While the goal of those policies is laudable, Coleman said, the practical result is an ambiguous mandate that leaves much open to interpretation.

"How do you define courteous without being content-laden, without the governmental institution picking and choosing the content?" Coleman said.

But other members of the rules review committee expressed skepticism that Coleman's hypotheticals required legislative solutions.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, questioned how a prohibition on insults and ridicule differs from anti-bullying policies in elementary, middle and high schools.

"Don't you think there ought to be some policy that would be protective of them in terms of just their well-being?" Moss asked.

Rep. Curt Webb, R-Logan, said he was irritated by the discussion. He said there is a civil environment at Utah's campuses, which suggests administrative rules are yielding positive results.

"Why are we taking away standards that seem to work?" Webb asked. "In a time when values and civility are going out the window, this seems to run counter to that. This seems to encourage incivility."

Coleman said laws and policies that prohibit harassment and defamation would continue, and be based on established and objective standards grounded in legal precedent. But free speech goes beyond targeted harassment, she said, and campus policies that attempt to apply subjective standards to language that is rude or offensive run a risk of violating constitutional protections.

"Nothing about this removes your own social consequences for speech that offends people," Coleman said. "If I don't like the language you use and it's offensive to me, I may choose to not socialize with you. I may choose to counter your speech with my speech."

And because college students are adults, said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, it is appropriate for them to be subject to a different standard of appropriate speech and bullying than grade-school children who are compelled by law to attend class.

"They're not 18," Stephenson said. "They're not adults and they don't get to use either of the G-words, the four-letter F-word or the six-letter F-word."

But other lawmakers questioned whether it was the role of the committee, and not school administrators, to rewrite student handbooks for Utah's colleges and universities.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, referred to the $67,000-per-month salary of interim University of Utah Health Care CEO A. Lorris Betz. At that level of pay, Dabakis joked, school leaders should have some expertise on appropriate campus policies.

"If we're paying these kinds of administrators that kind of money," Dabakis said, "let's let them figure all this out."

He also said that perceived uptick in free speech demonstrations in the U.S. was partly attributable to the election of President Donald Trump.

"The man that is in the White House now has set new grounds for a lack of civility, for disrespect," Dabakis said.

Last year, Colman successfully sponsored HB54, which designated outdoor areas on Utah campuses as "public forums,"

But Coleman said it is not her intention to rewrite school policies or dictate the terms of campus speech rules. Lawmakers have the responsibility, she said, to ensure that individual rights are protected and that government institutions are operating within the law.

"We don't want government to decide what's decent, what's acceptable, what's offensive, what's civil," Coleman said. "We want government out of the way of making those decisions."


Twitter: @bjaminwood

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