Last week, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill that will prevent Colorado’s public colleges and universities from quarantining students’ expressive activities into tiny, misleadingly labelled “free speech zones.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education was joined by the ACLU of Colorado in lobbying for the bill, which passed the Colorado General Assembly with bipartisan support.
Senate Bill 17-062 was sponsored by Sen. Tim Neville, co-sponsored by Reps. Jeff Bridges and Stephen Humphrey, and strongly supported by Rep. Dave Williams. Under the new law, any lawful student speech in the open, outdoor areas of Colorado’s public campuses may now be subject only to reasonable, content- and viewpoint-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions that are narrowly tailored in furtherance of a significant institutional interest.
“Everyone loses when colleges implement unconstitutional free speech zones,” said FIRE Legislative and Policy Director Joe Cohn in a news release. “Students lose their First Amendment rights, colleges lose lawsuits, and taxpayers are left on the hook to pay legal bills. With the passage of this bill, Coloradans will no longer bear the high costs of quarantining constitutional rights into unconstitutional free speech zones.”
Eliminating free speech zone policies is one of FIRE’s top priorities because they are used to stifle campus expression from across the political spectrum. Throughout the country, free speech zones like those prohibited under this new law have been used to prevent students from distributing literature promoting a vegan diet, to stop students from protesting the National Security Agency and gun restrictions, and even to prohibit students from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution.
FIRE has found that roughly one in 10 colleges maintain free speech zones. Even more require students to obtain permission before engaging in free speech activities like circulating petitions or distributing literature outdoors.
Public institutions in Colorado are included among the schools with restrictive speech policies; of the nine public Colorado colleges and universities that FIRE includes in its Spotlight on Speech Codes report, five have policies that impermissibly restrict students’ right to protest and demonstrate. For example, Colorado State University–Pueblo requires demonstrators to apply for permission to gather three days in advance, without publishing the criteria by which those applications will be evaluated. And the University of Colorado Boulder designates only one location on campus where students can assemble to exercise their free speech rights without obtaining advance permission, and requires 10 days’ notice for all other outdoor areas on campus.
“I introduced this bill because the rights of students to express themselves on campus were being restricted by policies that unacceptably required students to get permission before publicly assembling or distributing literature and by policies that quarantined students so they could only exercise their rights on some parts of their campuses,” said Sen. Neville, the bill’s author. “Now that the Governor has signed this legislation into law, free expression on campus can thrive.”
“This new law will finally allow students of diverse backgrounds here in Colorado the ability to truly engage in the free flow of ideas,” said Rep. Williams.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.
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