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


    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 is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”