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SALT LAKE CITY — A legislative panel signed off on legislation Monday to protect civil liberties on Utah's nine public university campuses and to encourage colleges to defend students' constitutional rights.
"If you're tapped into the news, you know that there's been conflicts on college campuses regarding free speech, and we in Utah have a history of our public institutions having policies that unconstitutionally suppress free speech rights and due process rights," said Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan.
Besides the fact that colleges have such policies, there are examples on multiple campuses in Utah where students' constitutional rights were limited, and they brought successful actions against the schools, she said. A national group that rates campus policies gives several Utah universities low grades.
"Institutions are fairly supportive now. In the beginning three years ago, not as much," said Coleman, who has worked on the issue with state legislatures around the country.
The Administrative Rules Committee passed a bill and resolution aimed at safeguarding the rights outlined in the U.S. and Utah constitutions for students, faculty, staff and visitors on college campuses. Coleman will carry the bill and Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, will sponsor the resolution in the 2018 Legislature.
The committee asked state universities and colleges in May to explain their processes for creating policies governing students, employees and visitors. Those institutions are exempt having to make rules about their policies.
Dabakis said his passion for the First Amendment spurred him to take on the legislation.
"I see it being eroded in places around the country. This is the basis of our democracy and laboratory for all that, the temple for that is our higher education institutions. We cannot allow them to be blocked off by people who were offended by this speech or that speech," he said.
Dabakis said though some of the conservative rhetoric makes him want to "vomit," speech shouldn't be stifled. Coleman said the same about liberal speech.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, the committee co-chairman, said people will question the bipartisan support for the legislation, calling Dabakis a "liberal's liberal" and Coleman a "conservative's conservative." Neither, he said, compromised their principles but sought to protect students' rights
"There will be those questions, and I think we have very, very solid answers," Stephenson said, adding that the committee doesn't typically deal with bills on students’ civil rights.
Coleman's bill would require public universities to identify those policies that affect students' civil liberties and repeal them or start a process to make rules surrounding them. It also sets up a complaint process through the Utah State Board of Regents.
The regents, who oversee public universities, wouldn't consider the merits of the complaint but only whether it was made in good faith, and then direct the institution to consider rules for the challenged policy.
"The bar is set very low, and that’s intentional," said Geoffrey Landward, Utah System of Higher Education assistant commissioner, who helped draft the legislation.
Landward told the committee he ran the bill past attorneys at all the schools. Their concerns were more about the workload it would create rather than any legal issues, he said.
Dabakis' resolution encourages higher education to defend students' rights and create an avenue by which they may appeal school policy.
The bipartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education rates university policies on the degree to which they curtail free speech.
It gives Utah State University and Utah Valley University a red light for having at least one policy that "clearly and substantially" restricts freedom of speech. It rates the University of Utah and Weber State University as yellow lights for having at least one "ambiguous policy that too easily" encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.
Controversy over free speech raised its head at the U. in September with the appearance of conservative commentator Ben Shapiro. Far-left students protested and wanted his speech canceled.
The U. aimed to strike a delicate balance to protect protesters and people attending the speech by the former Breitbart News editor while trying to avoid what a school spokesman called a "police state" atmosphere.