Campus free speech bill returns to Montana legislature

Administrators say school policy already protects speech; others say not enough

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Wikimedia Commons, usage CC-SA 4.0)

Supporters of a bill that aims to protect free speech on public college campuses contradicted school administrators who said campus policies already do just that.

In a lengthy opening argument, the bill’s sponsor, Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, said current university policies allow campuses to silence groups by muzzling public speakers and establishing free speech zones.

He described them as policies that go against what makes college campuses great — “this idea of a place of free exchange of ideas, of thoughts, of arguments” — and said freedom of speech at universities deserves protection not just by higher education but in state statute.

About a dozen people ranging from a military veteran to college students testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday in support of House Bill 218.

University of Montana student Spencer Whitaker testified that there is an “aura of free speech discrimination” that looms over the university.

No one testified in opposition of the bill, but administrators from Montana State University and the University of Montana maintained during the hearing their campuses already comply with HB218.

The bill would allow a university to be fined from $2,000 to $75,000 if it was found to be violating a student or group’s free speech rights and would prohibit free speech zones — designated areas on campuses where students don’t need approval from administrators for events like political conventions, protests and demonstrations.

Janelle Booth, director of government affairs at MSU, said the campus policies are the same across the state in that they may not conflict with the First Amendment.

“We do not regulate speech based on offensive content as long as it falls within the First Amendment guidelines of not being hate speech,” Booth said. Because of that guideline, she said campus policies are already aligned with the bill.

During questioning, she even went as far as to say MSU would allow Nazi groups to disseminate anti-Semitic literature on campus as long as they don’t engage in hate speech, like inciting violence.

But Hopkins and some students testified that is not always the case.

Dylan Dean, an MSU student and state chair for Montana Young Americans for Liberty said a video he submitted to promote his club on the school’s website was rejected with no explanation. He also said it was ultimately accepted after he edited it.

A nearly identical bill made it to former Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk in 2019 but was vetoed. The bill is one of many that Democrat Bullock vetoed that GOP lawmakers are reviving in hopes of passing with a Republican governor.

Administrators from MSU and MU said during the hearing that their respective campuses got rid of free-speech zones after the 2019 legislation was introduced.

Hopkins also brought up the controversial speech of Mike Adams — a criminologist who targeted transgender and LGTBQ communities in his columns — in 2018 as an example of universities saying they support free speech being nothing more than a mirage.

Adams’ was allowed to give his speech on campus but it was not sponsored by the college’s school of journalism. Adams died by suicide last year.

“I can assure you that while there were a lot of students and some faculty on campus who were concerned about Mr Adams’ message, he was still provided the facility, the audio equipment, and the university covered the cost for additional security,” said Dave Kuntz, director of strategic communications for UM.

Legal analysts for the Legislature have expressed concerns that the bill could be unconstitutional because it dictates policy for university and college campuses in Montana that is normally reserved for the Montana Board of Regents.