Lawmakers on Maine’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on Monday held a public hearing on LD 665, sponsored by Rep. John Andrews, a bill that would reaffirm the First Amendment rights of students, organizations and guest speakers at all public universities in Maine and prevent these institutions from establishing “free speech zones” that are used to restrict the right of free expression.
Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of academic freedom, but in recent years it appears as though this value has been lost in higher education. Speakers on both sides of the ideological spectrum and everywhere in between have faced backlash on college campuses simply for prescribing to and sharing their individual beliefs. LD 665 is the right move for Maine because it would promote freedom of speech at public institutions across the state and ensure that students, speakers and ideas are not being censored by administration or university policy.
There have been enough cases around the nation to illustrate that this legislation is necessary to keep public universities in line with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, but we do not need to look any further than Maine to find an example of questionable enforcement of First Amendment protections.
Last month, the University of Maine created a “designated free speech area” in a parking lot on campus for individuals that wanted to protest the New England Clean Energy Connect project. Governor Janet Mills, who openly supports the project, was scheduled to visit the campus and the school anticipated protesters. Nonetheless, the exercise of free speech should never be confined to a specific zone in an outdoor area, especially at public universities that are funded with taxpayer dollars.
As acknowledged by Samantha Warren, Director of Government & Community Relations for the University of Maine System, University of Maine system schools may reasonably regulate speech at on-campus events to ensure public safety and access to the event. “For example, during a large indoor event, the University may provide an alternative but adjacent area where individuals can exercise their rights to free expression without being disruptive to the formal proceedings or blocking safe entry and exit,” Warren testified.
But LD 665 would make outdoor areas on campus “traditional public forums for individuals, organizations and guest speakers,” ensuring that public universities in Maine could not require that all exercises of free speech be confined to a single area on campus that is considered the designated free speech space for all campus events and activities.
Unfortunately, some universities have instituted designated free speech zone policies that inherently promote the false concept that free speech is only allowed in specific area on campus. In February, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education filed a legal challenge of Arkansas State University’s free speech policy that confines speech to “free expression areas” on campus that are open only until 9 pm on weeknights and not at all on weekends.
“The problem is, ‘Free Expression Areas’ are not a thing under the Constitution — all public spaces in America are free-expression areas,” writes Emerson Sykes and Vera Eidelman, two staff attorneys of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), nine out of ten public institutions in the United States have policies that clearly restrict or could be interpreted to restrict freedom of speech on campus. As noted by the ACLU, “while it may sound like these [free speech] zones are designed to promote speech, they actually do the opposite by confining political expression to designated areas, often in out-of-the-way locations on campus.” These abuses of power by colleges and universities need to be reined in to protect our inalienable First Amendment rights.
In testimony opposing LD 665 the ACLU raised concerns about some language of the bill concerning counter-speech, but stated it would withdraw its opposition if lawmakers tighten up the language.
The bill gives the Attorney General the authority to enforce compliance with the measure, which would hold public institutions accountable for their actions if they do not allow individuals to speak freely. This language is necessary to enforce the act and is fair to protect students from misguided policies that violate free speech.
All students should be free to speak their minds on campus, and speech should never be confined to a specific area. LD 665 would promote freedom of speech and safeguard the individual liberties of all students, organizations and guest speakers. Lawmakers should advance LD 665 this session.