ST. GEORGE — Inspired by a First Amendment lawsuit against Dixie State University in 2015, a couple of Utah legislators are aiming to better protect students’ rights.
A bipartisan resolution proposed in the 2018 legislative session looks to encourage state institutions of higher education to protect students’ civil liberties. After being introduced in the Senate Monday, the proposed Concurrent Resolution on the Importance of Civil Liberties for Students was favorably recommended by the Senate Education Committee Tuesday.
Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, is one of the sponsors of the resolution. After hearing about incidents in which free speech on Utah college campuses was encroached, Coleman said she knew she needed to take action.
“Here in Utah and all around the country, free speech is something that we see has become at risk,” Coleman said. “College campuses especially should be where free speech flourishes and is not taken away. That’s what (Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City) and I hope to protect with this resolution.”
Impact on college campuses
One of the incidents Coleman said inspired her to sponsor the resolution was a free speech lawsuit against Dixie State in 2015, which was filed after the university tried to prevent students from posting flyers around campus that made fun of political figures.
Forrest Gee, who is now a senior at Dixie State, was one of three students who received a $50,000 settlement from the university as a result of the lawsuit. After the lawsuit, Dixie State’s free speech policy was revised to something Gee said is much more open. However, Gee said, there is still room for the university to improve its free speech policies further.
“It’s definitely become a lot better since the revision of the free speech policies,” he said. “It’s a lot more open for students to protest now if they feel like they need to.”
There should be some kind of free speech committee on every college campus to help determine what is permissible to say, Gee said.
Dixie State officials said in a statement: “University community members have the right to freedom of speech and assembly without prior restraint or censorship, subject to clearly stated, reasonable and nondiscriminatory rules and regulations regarding time, place and manner.”
Southern Utah University officials did not respond to St. George News’ requests for comment on how a resolution encouraging the protection of students’ free speech rights might impact their institution.
Appealing a policy that infringes on students’ rights
Another key aspect of the resolution is it will recommend an “avenue by which a student may appeal a school policy.” This means it would be up to the state institutions of higher education to create a way for students to challenge their policies that may infringe on students’ rights.
Coleman said it’s important for students to have a way to stand up against institutions of higher education if there is something they see needs to change.
“Students need some way, without taking legal action, to challenge universities if they are infringing upon their rights,” Coleman said.
Coleman is also sponsoring a bill in the House that would require students to have legal representation present at certain disciplinary proceedings in an institution of higher education. The bill proposes to enact the Student Right to Active Counsel law. The bill introduced in the House Monday and sent to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration.
If there had been a way for Gee to challenge the university through an official appeals process, he said he may not have had to sue Dixie State for violating his First Amendment rights in 2015.
Students come to universities to learn and expand their worldview by exercising free speech and listening to others, Gee said.
“We’re not here at universities to be thrown into an echo chamber where we’re not being exposed to different ideas,” Gee said. “Oftentimes, students feel like they can’t speak freely on campus if they have a differing opinion. This needs to change for all universities.”
- Read full text of the proposed resolution: 2018 – SCR 3 – Concurrent Resolution on the Importance of Civil Liberties for Students.
- Read full text of the House bill: 2018 HB 82 – Student Right to Active Counsel
- Contact legislators:
- Resolution sponsor (SCR 3): Sen. Jim Dabakis | House floor sponsor: Rep. Kim F. Coleman.
- Bill sponsor (HB 82): Rep. Kim F. Coleman.
- Southern Utah Sens. Evan Vickers, Don Ipson, David Hinkins and Ralph Okerlund | Listing of all senators.
- Southern Utah Reps. Jon Stanard, Bradley Last, V. Lowry Snow, Walt Brooks, John Westwood, Merrill Nelson and Michael Noel | Listing of all members of the House of Representatives.
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