The Montana House Judiciary Committee heard a bill on Wednesday that proposes to ban “free-speech zones” at public universities across the state.

House Bill 218 will prevent public universities from restricting free, unfettered speech to a small area on campus, essentially allowing free speech throughout campus. 

Sponsor and House Representative Mike Hopkins, a Republican from Missoula, home to the University of Montana, argued that the new bill would prevent current university policies from muzzling public speakers and deterring conservative organizations from being silenced on campus.

He called these campus policies counterproductive to a healthy college experience — “a place of free exchange of ideas, of thoughts, of arguments” — and said freedom of speech at colleges and universities deserves protection not just by school authorities but also by the state.

 

Provisions of the Bill

The new bill could require universities to shell out between $2,000 and $75,000 in damages to students whose speech rights are violated on campus.

However, administrators from Montana State University and the University of Montana believe their campus policies already comply with the bill.

Janelle Booth, director of government affairs at Montana State University says even Nazi groups are allowed to share their views on the university campus, as long as it is done peacefully. “We do not regulate speech based on offensive content as long as it falls within the First Amendment guidelines of not being hate speech,” she said.

Support for the Bill

No one testified against the bill. In fact, a large number of people, ranging from military veterans to college students, testified in support of the bill.

Similar legislation was passed but vetoed two years ago. The current bill is being backed by student groups and organizations such as the Montana Broadcasters Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana. 

Hopkins defended the bill, saying it would ensure a healthy exchange of all forms of speech and viewpoints on campus. 

Previous Campaigns

This is not the first time that a state legislature has heard a bill advocating free speech on campus. In 2019, the House Oversight Committee in Michigan passed a bill to protect free speech at all public higher education institutions.

That same year, two Republican lawmakers introduced a bill to ensure freedom of expression on University of Wisconsin campuses.

Students and rights activists have also campaigned for free speech rights on campuses. Non-profits such as Speech First have previously sued universities such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Texas at Austin for censoring free speech on campus.

If the bill is signed into law, Montana would join states like Texas, Kentucky, and Alabama with similar measures protecting freedom of expression on campus.