New Bill Would Force U. Nebraska to Guarantee Free Speech on Campus

Bill introduced following harassment of conservative student by university staff

University of Nebraska / Wikimedia Commons
University of Nebraska / Wikimedia Commons
January 5, 2018

A bill introduced Wednesday in the Nebraska state legislature would require the University of Nebraska Board of Regents to guarantee free speech on campus and institute regulations to that effect.

The regents would be required to "develop, adopt, and promulgate a policy governing free expression within its campuses," under the Higher Education Free Speech Accountability Act.

The board would be expected to attest that "it is not the proper role" of administrators to "shield" students from First Amendment-protected speech, and proclaim the NU system defends speech "without limitation" on views "unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive."

However, "protest and demonstrations that materially and substantially infringe upon the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity" would be banned, and sanctions applied to students or staff who engage in "unlawful" expressive activity, according to the bill. Disciplinary action for disruptions would have to progressively increase for repeat offenders.

The board would also be charged with creating a nine-member Committee on Free Expression, consisting of three regents, three faculty, and three students, to produce an annual public report on any disruptive incidents that took place and what disciplinary action was taken against the offenders.

Republican State Senator Steve Halloran introduced the bill after becoming concerned about the state of free speech for right-wing U. Nebraska students when video footage emerged in the fall of a student being harassed and berated by university staff while promoting her conservative club.

"We [the state legislature] give a large sum of money to the university," Halloran told the Washington Free Beacon in a phone call. "We have the task of making sure they are accountable and transparent."

He shot down suggestions that the suggested guidelines on regulating protests could have a chilling effect on expression, saying that, in his bill, "everybody's freedom of speech must be protected, regardless of political persuasion, whether it be student or teacher."

The responsibility for crafting the specifics of the new regulations falls on the board.

"The regents are the overseers, they are responsible for the policies," he said. "This is encouragement for them to establish sound policies, but we don't dictate what they are."

The board of regents did not immediately respond to request for comment about the proposed legislation.

Halloran said he has yet to receive feedback from his fellow state senators, and declined to comment on what he believed the result would be of the review process to take place over the next 60 days.

Regardless, of his bill's success, "something needs to be done," he said.

In October, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents approved a controversial policy that warned students who disrupted their peers' speech twice through violence or disorderly conduct would be suspended, and those who were found to do so three times would be expelled.

At least six states have passed legislation this year abolishing speech zones that limit public expression to select sections of public university campuses, calling the regulation unconstitutional.

Still, over 90 percent of the America's top colleges regulate campus free speech, with one third employing severely restrictive policies, according to an annual report from a First Amendment watchdog.

Published under: First Amendment