Big Sky Roundup

Campus free speech bill passes 11-0; companion HB349 passes 7-4

By: - March 18, 2021 6:38 pm

Montana State University is the flagship campus in Bozeman. (Photo provided by MSU.)

A bill to protect free speech on public college campuses passed 11-0 on Thursday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, said she remembers as a student being subject to a “free speech zone” near a building no one ever walked by. She said she liked the bill and the “slightly less prominent” damages in the version this year compared to last session.

“I think it’s really important that we support college campuses as places where ideas can be freely expressed and exchanged in a respectful way,” Gross said.

House Bill 218 notes outdoor areas on Montana University System campuses are public forums, and it prohibits free-speech zones. However, it also notes the following: “A public postsecondary institution may maintain and enforce reasonable restrictions on the time, place, or manner of expressive activity. The restrictions must be narrowly tailored to serve a significant institutional interest.”

The bill protects “any lawful oral, written, audiovisual, or electronic means by which individuals may communicate ideas to one another, including all forms of peaceful assembly, protests, speeches, guest speakers, distribution of printed materials, carrying signs, and circulating petitions.”

An aggrieved student or group can seek damages, and the bill sets the remedy for a violation from $2,000 to $75,000.

Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, sponsored both HB218 and a companion bill, House Bill 349.

HB349 notes a campus may not deny “a religious, political, or ideological student organization a benefit or privilege available to other student organizations or otherwise discriminate against a student organization based on the student organization’s expressive activity.” That includes any requirement that a leader or member “affirm and adhere to the student organization’s sincerely held beliefs.”

The bill passed 7-4 on party lines, with Democrats in opposition.

Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, said the bill had good elements and he had been hoping to support it. But he said he doesn’t believe that a public institution receiving public funds should allow student groups the limitations outlined in the bill, and he feared it could run contrary to the Montana Human Rights Act.

“This takes away a lot of opportunities for those same sort of exchanges of ideas” in HB218, Bennett said.

Both bills will move to the Senate floor.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.