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Free speech zones rattled college campuses, but new legislation seeks to alleviate grievances

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UCCS' free speech zone. - HANNAH HARVEY
  • Hannah Harvey
  • UCCS' free speech zone.

In November 2016, then-U.S. Senate candidate Arn Menconi and a group of protesters gathered in front of Kraemer Family Library at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to heckle Sen. Michael Bennet during a campaign stop. Though the protest was nonviolent, the demonstrators were told to leave the rally immediately by university officials. The reason? They didn't reserve the space prior to the protest and were outside the limits of the campus "free speech zone," which had been designated for protesters, speakers and others campaigning for causes and holding events. The group refused.

This instance, and others like it, sparked debate about freedom-of-speech zones on Colorado's college campuses, prompting state legislators to ban them.

On April 4, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed Student Free Speech Public Higher Education Campuses into law. Senate Bill 62 prohibits public colleges and universities from limiting student expression anywhere on campus (except when narrowly applied to serve "a significant government interest" or to allow a previously scheduled or reserved activity), effectively banning campus free speech zones. Some student political leaders view the bill as a good thing.

"There is definitely more attention being paid to this [free speech] issue," says Steve Bates, vice president of the UCCS College Republicans, who says he has seen more students take interest in their First Amendment rights.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Tim Neville and Rep. Stephen Humphrey and Democrat Rep. Jeff Bridges, states that "a public institution shall not designate any area on campus as a free speech zone or otherwise create policies that imply that its students' expressive activities are restricted to a particular area of campus."

According to Neville, free speech zones limit rights protected under the First Amendment, which isn't constructive for students developing and being introduced to different perspectives during their time in college.

"We're trying to allow students to exercise their First Amendment rights, while colleges can go about the business of education," he says.

Neville says free speech zones are "quarantine zones," and that restricting free speech this way can prevent students from being open-minded about viewpoints they disagree with — and that's a problem.

"Looking at what's going on, I see more of a battle for people to get their ideas out there and exercise their First Amendment rights," Neville says. "Stating something others might disagree with, or holding a sign, should happen on all areas of campus."

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At the student level, similar legislation was making its way through the UCCS Student Government Association before the passage of SB-62. Bates co-authored the Reaffirmation of Free Speech, Student Resolution 03, which passed in December 2016, though it lacked teeth. Later in the school year, he, along with Richard Wickham, president of Young Americans for Liberty at UCCS, attempted to pass SR-05, the Campus Free Speech bill, which would have amended the UCCS free speech zone policy. The bill was ultimately vetoed by Samuel Elliott, student body president, who sent a letter to SGA members explaining that he disagreed with the language in the bill. The passing of SB-62, however, trumps both student government actions.

Free speech is more of a social issue at UCCS. According to Bates, it's not that students feel their legal rights under the First Amendment are being threatened. He, like Mary Claire Rizzardi, president of the College Democrats at UCCS, believes college students are mature and responsible enough to hold themselves accountable for what they say, but that free speech zones can restrict student expression.

"Free speech is not an issue at UCCS at all, unless a club is bringing harmful speakers to campus. Anyone who believes in the Constitution would support the First Amendment," Rizzardi says.

"You shouldn't threaten violence. Free speech is dependent on your character, if you take issue with something that someone says," Bates says. "We can't standardize free speech. Be respectful; everyone has the right to be responsible."

Free speech has been the subject of lively debate at UCCS since Bates brought Milo Yiannopoulos, former Breitbart technology editor, to campus to speak as part of a nationwide tour. The event was met with controversy from UCCS faculty, staff, students and the surrounding community. But Bates says the controversy relates to how we should or should not regulate free speech.

"The difference between Milo and any other pundit is that Milo is deliberately provocative," Bates says.

At the Yiannopoulos event, protesters were asked to stay within a set area that they had reserved. They did not, and no one was punished. UCCS spokesperson Tom Hutton says UCCS does not have free speech zones though it does encourage all groups, including protesters, to reserve space ahead of time because of the University's limited outdoor areas.

A single area is always open to free speech, though Hutton declined to call it a zone. Located between the University Center and Centennial Hall the space is approximately 0.145 acres. UCCS covers well over 500 acres, meaning that spontaneous free speech was only allowed on less than one half of one percent of the campus.

If an event with a political pundit such as Yiannopoulos were to occur again, under SB-62, the focus would be on speakers' right to speak in whatever way they wish, as long as they aren't inciting violence. Protesters would be allowed the same opportunity, without being restricted to a free speech zone or reserved area.

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But at some college campuses, free speech zones, if they even exist, don't seem to be causing a problem for students.

This is the case at Colorado College, a private institution where SB-62 doesn't apply, but where free speech isn't a prominent issue, according to Steven Ortega, co-chair of the College Democrats and vice president for Student Concerns in the CC Student Government Association. Colorado College does not have any free speech zones, nor has student legislation been drafted in regard to free speech. Ortega says political affiliations don't tend to determine activity on the campus.

"There's a lower degree of that kind of partisan political activity at CC and other liberal arts colleges," he says.

Robbie Twells, president of the College Republicans at Colorado College, agrees with Ortega that the issue of free speech isn't about a student's political affiliation. Twells hasn't felt marginalized on campus, even after the 2016 presidential election, when more and more students asked him about his personal feelings on the election of Donald Trump and emotions were running high.

At CC, the imbalance between the number of liberal and conservative students makes the topic a bit more complex.

"The issues with free speech are with minorities who feel that they don't have a voice. More seminars, more open mics and advocating for free speech to voice opinions [would be a solution]," says Twells.

Political activity does occur on the CC campus; students participate in minor protests on school grounds, but usually take demonstrations downtown, Twells says. For him, each individual should have the freedom to voice an opinion anywhere they want.

"Designating a specific area doesn't let people speak their minds. [SB-62] helps students because if they feel their free speech isn't being valued, it gives them a way to voice their opinion," he says.

At UCCS, the absence of the free speech zone may benefit students, but it's not yet known whether SB-62 will be a good thing for everyone on campus.

Rizzardi says students should understand their protections with academic freedom under the new law. University faculty members have the right to express their views and engage in research on the topics they choose, but academic freedom does not protect students or faculty from being disciplined if they are deemed to be forcing personal views. It also means that students aren't protected if they refuse course material — faculty can still hold them accountable for mastering class concepts.

However, a summary of SB-62 states, "A student who has been denied access to a student forum for expressive purposes may bring a court action to recover reasonable court costs and attorney fees." And that could encourage more students to take legal action to protect their rights.

Supporters of SB-62 say college campuses should remain places that foster critical thinking, and that students ideally should challenge themselves to stay open-minded, or at least tolerant of perspectives different from their own.

"We need to craft a balance of responsibility. Being able to disagree is healthy," says Neville.

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