Gov. Cox doesn’t want Utah colleges commenting on Israel-Hamas war — or any other political issue

Utah Board of Higher Education passed a measure requiring state universities to create policies on free speech and the limitations of it.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during a press conference on free speech on college campuses in downtown Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox wants the state’s colleges and universities to stop commenting on current events — adding specifically that he doesn’t want to see any opinions from Utah schools about the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

Addressing a room filled with the leaders of Utah’s eight public schools on Friday, Cox said the institutions should remain neutral and that college presidents who are interested in giving their opinions should quit and instead run for political office.

“I do not care what your position is on Israel and Palestine. I don’t,” he said. “I don’t care what your position is on Roe v. Wade. We don’t need our institutions to take a position on those things.”

Cox’s comments came as part of a news conference with the Utah Board of Higher Education. Board members passed a measure requiring all public colleges in the state to draft resolutions outlining protections for free speech for students and community members — as well as limitations. The policies must include a commitment to neutrality for each institution and its leaders.

The timing of the new requirements follows protests at the University of Utah. Last month the flagship school drew attention after it pulled its sponsorship of MECHA, a student group, after members disrupted an event about the transgender community held by a conservative club on campus that was ultimately canceled due to the disruption.

College campuses across the country are seeing students increasingly protest and tensions rising over the Israel-Hamas war.

Cox said he’s concerned “with the direction of higher education in this space,” believing that political statements are not the role of institutions of public education.

He and other state leaders who spoke Friday didn’t mention MECHA, but the governor also said the state and its public school campuses will not support one group shouting down another and not allowing individuals to exercise their own free speech rights — regardless of the topic.

“Protesting, that’s great,” he said. “We want young people to explore their ideas and to learn that maybe some of their ideas are wrong; however, we will not on our campuses in Utah permit groups of students from canceling other people in their views at their events. Protest if you want. But you have to make space for others.”

The governor has long championed his concept of “disagree better” and recently released a video campaign with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, about how those on different sides of an issue should listen and have civil dialogue.

Creating a place for discussions is what college campuses are for, Cox said Friday, where students can learn different ideas and debate them. And universities should seek to foster that by creating forums and inviting diverse speakers.

University neutrality

Universities should be neutral “protectors of the forum,” said Geoff Landward, the interim commissioner of higher education for the state.

The requirements say a public university in the state “must refrain from taking public positions on political, social or unsettled issues that do not directly relate to the institution’s mission, role or pedagogical objectives.”

Over the last 20 years or so, Cox said he’s felt like college presidents have been pushed to release public statements on every “issue of the day.” He called it a “mistake” and “one of the dumbest things we’ve done” as a country.

“The minute our institutions say this is the correct idea of the day, then what you have done is you have sent a message to other students that their ideas are not welcome at your institution, that there is not room for debate,” Cox said. “We will not allow that to happen. There will be no more of this in the state of Utah.”

Several colleges in the state issued statements when the Israel-Hamas war started in early October. The University of Utah, Utah State University and Utah Valley University posted public comments. Others acknowledged the initial attacks and escalation in internal emails to students and staff.

None of the institutions took a side, and all generally condemned violence and wished for peace.

Cox said when an issue comes up, like abortion or a conflict, universities should “err on the side of less” and not make a statement.

“When something bad happens, you don’t have to fret,” he said. “You don’t have to say [something] any more.”

When asked whether the directive would also apply to things like LGBTQ Pride Month or Black History Month or an Indigenous land acknowledgment on campus — which some might view as political — the governor said: “Less is definitely more in this space for sure. Those are details that will continue to be discussed.”

At the same time, though, universities and colleges have seen pushback for not speaking out. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman told his alma mater the University of Pennsylvania that his family would cut off donations because of what he saw as the school’s slow response to the attacks.

Landward acknowledged Friday that it’s “a difficult balance.” But he stands behind the board’s measure, which includes forming an advisory committee to help universities craft their policies.

The board originally drafted principles around free speech on Utah’s public college campuses in May; the measure passed Friday now requires universities to draft policies to incorporate those and detail how they will respond when issues arise.

Student speech

Steve Neeleman, vice chair of the board, said the intention is to “be proactive” as issues with student speech are cropping up.

“When these things build up, and there’s not a forum for people to talk about them, they explode,” he added.

Utah State University President Elizabeth “Betsy” Cantwell said she helped draft a policy for her school that was released Thursday, before the higher education board meeting. USU has also developed a website where students can clearly see what limitations there are on speech on campus, including rules against violence and defamation.

But it’s also a “constant negotiation,” she said.

Mitzi Montoya, the U.’s senior vice president for academic affairs, said the University of Utah doesn’t have a formal policy crafted based on the board’s requirements, but it did release a list of frequently asked questions and answers for students following the concerns with MECHA.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The student group MECHA occupies the Union Ballroom during a protest on the University of Utah's campus on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

Part of the new requirements for universities include establishing a policy that doesn’t allow for groups to shout over others while detailing how a school will intervene if that happens.

The measure passed Friday reads: “Institutions have a solemn responsibility not only to promote the freedom to debate and scrutinize all ideas in appropriate forums but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”

Landward said even if one group sees something as hate speech, that speech is still protected “no matter how deplorable it is.” Protesters can condemn it, he noted, but they can’t forcibly stop it.

“Many students don’t understand these basic principles of free speech,” he said. The new policies “will help them to understand what your role is and what your role is not as a university.”

Cox, along with Utah Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Mike Schultz, said they encourage students to protest but to do so in an appropriate manner. Adams, who is conservative, spoke about enjoying taking a class at the U. from a liberal professor because he learned to debate. Cox talked about writing a letter critical of the university’s administration when he attended USU.

“I support our students and their ability to protest,” Cox said. “Protesting on campuses is as old as campuses itself.”

But he urged students not to cancel others and instead suggested, “The way you stop bad ideas is to present better ideas.”