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Ray Holmberg

ND bill would keep universities from canceling speakers for political ideology

GRAND FORKS -- A Senate bill that would strengthen language around free speech on North Dakota college campuses has student leaders at the University of North Dakota questioning what the law would look like in practice.

Senate Bill 2320, introduced by Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, would require the State Board of Higher Education and each institution to adopt and enforce a policy “affirming” that students have a fundamental, constitutional right to speech. It is also includes a long list of additional requirements regarding free speech zones and security costs associated with speakers.

The legislation would also require that an institution is committed to “giving students the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, learn and discuss any issue.”

The bill states that an institution should be committed to “maintaining a campus as a marketplace of ideas for all students and faculty” where the “free exchange of ideas is not to be suppressed” simply because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even most members of the community to be “offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical or wrongheaded.”

Additionally, an institution “may not attempt to shield individuals from free speech.” The schools also cannot use concerns about civility and mutual respect as a justification for limiting or restricting speech.

Concerns

UND Student Body President Erik Hanson said he wants schools across the state to be open to any sort of speech.

“Universities really are laboratories where we get to hear mixed viewpoints, and that’s really what I think coming to a university is all about,” he said.

However, Hanson said the UND Student Senate is concerned with how some of the language in the bill would play out in practice. He said UND hasn’t been in a situation other campuses across the country have had when it comes to “controversial” speakers on campus.

“Regardless of which side it’s on, regardless of what they’re saying, we want to make sure that anybody who wants to speak and is brought here by a student organization can find a place to do it,” he said. “But we want to do it in a safe setting, too. We want to make sure all students feel included on campus.”

Schools would not be able to restrict students’ free speech to a particular area of campus -- areas that are sometimes known as “free speech zones” under the law.

The bill also would bar an institution from denying student activity fee funding to a student organization based on the viewpoints the organization advocates.

A school could “not charge students or student organizations security fees based on the content of the student's or student organization's speech, the content of the speech of guest speakers invited by students or the anticipated reaction or oppositions of listeners to speech,” the bill says.

In 2016, a planned appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos of the alt-right publication Breitbart at North Dakota State University was canceled over concerns protesters and counter-protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline would cause disruption or violence, Forum News Service reported.

A spokeswoman for NDSU said the security fee for the appearance was not increased in response to any security concerns. However, Jamal Omar, who was an NDSU student and an organizer for the event, said it became clear that added security would be required to deal with protests and counter-protests.

Hanson said it’s clear the bill presented is trying to give some direction to situations like that.

The bill also lays out guidelines for speech for faculty. While faculty members are “free in the classroom to discuss subjects within their areas of competence,” the bill states that they “should be cautious in expressing personal views in the classroom and careful not to introduce matters that have no relationship to the subject taught.” Faculty should be especially cautious on matters in which they have no special competence or training.

However, faculty may not face “adverse employment action” for a classroom speech, unless the speech is not “reasonably germane” to the subject matter of the class.

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