Senate bill would force Colorado campuses to stop confining free speech to “zones”

People protest inside a so-called "free speech zone" outside a Republican debate being held at the Coors Events Center at the University of Colorado.Colorado lawmakers want to give free rein to free speech on college campuses by eliminating free-speech zones and turning them into monuments to the First Amendment.

Senate Bill 62 also would give students the right to take a college or university to court — but not collect monetary damages — should they feel their free speech rights have been violated.

The bill would ensure the free exchange of ideas on a college campus, which is “critical to our public higher education institutions’ mission as a place of learning and marketplace of ideas,” said Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton.

Entire campuses should be open to free speech, not just defined areas, Neville added.

“The rise of so-called ‘Free Speech’ or ‘Safe Space’ zones spreads the incorrect idea that our students should limit their speech to confined areas — often out of sight of the public or their peers,” Neville said.

“An institution of higher education shall not designate any area on campus as a free speech zone,” the bill says. “A free speech zone that exists on campus … shall be converted to a monument or memorial” that honors the First Amendment right of free expression.

“We just wanted to set up some parameters for colleges and universities in Colorado,” he added.

The bill is scheduled for a Tuesday hearing by the Senate education committee.

Political groups and free speech advocates have contacted Neville and other lawmakers about problems with free speech zones on campuses. They have claimed people with unpopular views are often herded into the zones as a way to stifle political debate.

Students at both the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and University of Colorado-Boulder have pushed to abolish free speech zones on their respective campuses.

Neville said his bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Steve Humphrey, R-Severance, would not cover classroom discussions. The bill also doesn’t interfere with a college’s right to restrict and monitor any outside groups coming onto campus.

Hate speech is a separate issue and would not be permitted under the bill, Neville said.

CU is concerned about the bill’s unintended consequences, said spokesman Ken McConnellogue.

“The university has demonstrated a fundamental commitment to the free speech that is essential to our mission, but it is also incumbent upon us to maintain the safety and integrity of the learning environment for all our students,” McConnellogue said. “That is where our concern is. Our practices and policies maximize the ability of our students to debate ideas while ensuring that safety and integrity.”

The Colorado American Civil Liberties Union is reviewing the bill, a spokesman said Wednesday.