Lawmakers advance bill pitched as university campus free speech protection

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, (standing) is sponsor of HB158, a bill that aims to punish harassment but protect free speech on college campuses. The bill passed the House on Friday on a 44-25 vote and now goes to the Senate.

The Utah House approved a bill differentiating between protected free speech and harassment on college campuses.

The controversial legislation includes a provision that would prevent a university from punishing any form of speech that doesn’t fall under the Supreme Court’s definition of harassment in the 1999 ruling in Davis vs. Monroe County Board of Education.

Following a lively debate, the House voted 44 to 25 to send HB158 to the Senate.

Bill sponsor Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, called the legislation “simple” and said it affirms speech rights at public universities.

“Our higher education institutions have an obligation to do two things in this space. One is to prevent speech that is not protected in the harassment of other students as well as to protect speech that is protected,” Coleman said. “Sometimes we’ve seen that be confused.”

She said the high court ruling and her legislation defines harassment as “unwelcome, severe and pervasive and objectively offensive and that so undermines and detracts from a student’s educational experience to deprive them from their access and ability to benefit from those educational opportunities.”

According to Coleman, every other form of speech is protected.

In 2013, the Federal Office of Civil Rights issued a recommendation that some schools interpreted as a mandate, turning free speech laws on their head, she said.

“All of a sudden our free speech rights and harassment was now being defined in the eye of the beholder — If I feel offended, I am offended and someone should be punished,” Coleman said. “That’s not how we do free speech in America.”

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, defended uncivilized speech and said people don’t have a legal right to be free from annoyance or opinions different than their own.

“Uncivilized speech is how a lot of things get done. Uncivilized speech is how a lot of protests happen. Uncivilized speech has been the methodology for social change for a long, long time,” Brammer said, explaining why he feels uncomfortable penalizing students who engage in uncivilized speech.

There needs to be an understanding on campuses that students can say “horrible, no good, very bad things” without being punished, he said, unless they meet the standards for harassment.

Rep. Sandra Hollins, a Democrat representing Salt Lake City and Utah’s only black lawmaker, said she too believes free speech is important, but not at the cost of causing minorities to feel threatened.

Hollins explained she has had numerous conversations with minority students who are being harassed on campus by people different from them. She said she is concerned that under HB158, harassers could use the legislation as an excuse to continue targeting minorities because they feel they are protected.

“Yes, I think our campuses should be a place of learning experience where people from different backgrounds come together to learn about each other. There should be opposing views on college campuses, but I believe it should be done in a civilized manner,” Hollins said. “When people who are marginalized are feeling threatened by this then I have an issue.”

Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Taylorsville, said she also opposes HB158, because the bill only allows students to take their grievances to court, not faculty or community members.

At the conclusion of the debate, Coleman reiterated that in order for speech to be defined as harassment it needs to be objectively offensive — something that most people would agree is inappropriate.

“We don’t want people to be harassed. We want harassment to be resolved, we want people to be protected from harassment. But we also want speech to be protected as a fundamental value of our country,” Coleman said.