Education

Maine House votes to gut bill providing free speech protections to college students

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The Maine House of Representatives on Monday, June 3 voted 87-51 along party lines to pass a heavily-amended version of LD 665, “An Act to Enact the Campus Free Expression Act.” Sponsored by Rep. John Andrews of Paris, the bill prior to its amendment reaffirmed Maine public college and university students’ First Amendment rights on campus.

In the original text, LD 665 prohibited public universities from creating “free speech zones,” or designated areas on campus where students can exercise their First Amendment rights. This form of restriction on students’ free speech is commonplace on college campuses across the country and even in Maine.

In March, the University of Maine created a designated “free speech area” in preparation for a visit by Gov. Janet Mills. The creation of this “free speech area” was due to the university’s anticipation that students would likely protest the governor’s support of the New England Clean Energy Connect project. Prior to its amendment, LD 665 would have prohibited any public university in the state from creating such a zone. This is just one example of a Maine public University restricting students first amendment rights.

According to The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), many public universities in the state have policies that could infringe on students’ rights to free speech. FIRE is a nonprofit group that focuses on protecting the rights of students and faculty on American college campuses. FIRE grades the policies employed by universities across the country based on their compliance with the First Amendment and other rights.

FIRE’s grading system consists of three grades: Green, which indicates the University actively supports the First Amendment; Yellow, indicates the university, by virtue of ambiguity, has policies that have the potential to restrict free speech; and Red, which indicates that the university has at least one policy that restricts freedom of speech.

FIRE has given yellow grades to the University of Maine, the University of Maine at Fort Kent, the University of Maine at Presque Isle, as well as the University of Southern Maine. An example of a policy that contributed to the University of Maine’s yellow grade, as outlined in its Student Handbook, reads: “Individuals and groups wishing to use outdoor areas and facilities shall notify the Chief of the University of Maine Police or their designee at least three days in advance of the nature, the time, and the place of the proposed activity.” This is just one of six University of Maine policies that received a yellow grade from FIRE.

The University of Maine at Fort Kent has four policies that received a yellow rating by FIRE. One of these ambiguous policies reads: “Signs, notices and poster content should be cleared with the Student Affairs Office before being placed on display.” This policy requires the approval of administrators prior to distributing any form of literature, clearly restricting one’s First Amendment rights. There is no question that this policy could be used to suppress dissenting voices on campus.

The amended bill that was passed in the House on Monday directs the attorney general to investigate whether Maine public universities have violated or restricted students’ First Amendment rights, to determine whether further protections are necessary under state law. This amendment was passed despite the recent example of, and the student handbook’s potential for, the restriction of students’ First Amendment rights at schools within the University of Maine system.

In order to investigate potential free speech restrictions at Maine public colleges and universities, the amended bill creates a temporary assistant attorney general position. This position will come at a cost of $43,100 to Maine taxpayers.

The amended version of LD 665 wastes not only time but more than $43,000 of taxpayer resources to investigate a problem for which there is clear evidence of malfeasance. Does the state really need to hire an assistant attorney general to determine whether the First Amendment is being violated on public college and university campuses in Maine?

As noted by Rep. Lawrence Lockman on the House floor Monday, “All they need to do is read the newspaper.”

About William Rolfe

William Rolfe is a United States Air Force veteran and an intern at The Maine Heritage Policy Center. After being honorably discharged from the United States Air Force, he attended Central Maine Community College where he graduated with an associates degree in general studies. He currently attends the University of New Hampshire where he majors in social work, and hopes to one day attend law school so that he can advocate for fellow veterans.

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