Free-speech activists in the US state of Colorado are celebrating after the state passed a new bill prohibiting public universities from restricting speech on campus. The Colorado Senate Bill 62 was signed into law by Colorado governor John Hickenlooper. Previously, students at many Colorado colleges were only allowed to engage in debate and political activity on campus within designated ‘free speech zones’.
The bill was greeted with bipartisan support, and has been recognised as a model for defending free speech in public universities. It reinforces the free-speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, and emphasises public universities’ obligation to safeguard those rights. This extra measure was aimed at tackling Colorado colleges’ authoritarian policies, which were often implemented in breach of the First Amendment.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Colorado has just one public university with a ‘green-light rating’, meaning it doesn’t limit speech on campus. FIRE’s Spotlight Speech Code database of US colleges rates universities as either green, yellow or red according to their approach to free speech (a system spiked adapted for the UK for the Free Speech University Rankings). As for the rest of Colorado’s public institutions, 10 are rated either yellow or red because they hold unconstitutional speech codes.
This isn’t the first time that Colorado colleges’ poor record on free speech has been in the spotlight. Last autumn, in response to university officials shutting down political activity on campus, the Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) group at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs built a coalition to reform campus speech codes.
The Colorado bill is a welcome development, but the efforts of Colorado’s YAL members remind us that it’s also crucial that we challenge the censorious culture on campus. On campus today it is often students themselves who are agitating for censorship or shouting down speakers who offend them. Students can’t learn and professors can’t teach in an environment in which the norm is to drown out or disrupt the expression of offensive views. We have to win the argument for free speech with students as well as lawmakers.