HB 159: Free Speech on Campus Does Not Equal Harassment
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Free speech issues on Utah’s college campuses is not a new problem. Previously, the legislature has had to ban “free speech zones.” Now, all across the country, universities are feeling pressure to adopt restrictive harassment codes. These harassment codes are often over-broad and vague. When properly defined, peer harassment should not even be considered protected speech. As seen in the rest of the country, several Utah universities have adopted poorly written harassment codes that could be used to punish free speech.
Representative Jordan Teuscher’s House Bill 159 strikes a balance between harassment codes and free speech. His bill uses the Supreme Court standard from Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999).
Universities in violation of this law would be subject to litigation as HB 159 establishes a private cause of action, allowing a person whose free speech rights were violated to sue the school, and if victorious, receive a monetary award along with compensatory damages, court costs, and attorney fees.
While private universities have the right to impose limits on the free speech opportunities of their students, government-funded universities must allow students to exercise their rights to speech without any intervention unless there is actual harassment or public safety legitimately warrants it. This bill puts universities throughout Utah on notice that the free speech rights of their students must be strongly protected.