Campus Free Speech

Montana Becomes Latest State To Protect Free Speech With the FORUM Act

Now 14 states have legislation explicitly protecting free speech on campus.

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Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte fortified First Amendment protections at public universities Thursday by signing H.B. 218. This bill designates outdoor spaces at public universities as public forums, eliminates "free speech zones" that relegate open expression to contained areas, and allows a cause of action in court to students whose First Amendment rights are violated.

State Rep. Mike Hopkins (R–Missoula) originally introduced H.B. 218 in 2018, after the University of Montana's School of Journalism refused to sponsor a speech by the conservative sociologist Mike Adams. The bill passed with broad bipartisan backing in March, with just four votes against it in the House and unanimous support in the Senate. Gianforte praised the legislation, proclaiming, "A university should be a place where the free exchange of ideas is encouraged, without voices silenced."

H.B. 218 is based on the Forming Open and Robust University Minds (FORUM) Act, a model bill developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in 2017. The FORUM Act protects students and student organizations from disciplinary action for lawful expression. "Free speech is fundamental to American democracy, and FORUM represents a set of best practices for legislators to follow," says Andrew Handel, director of ALEC's Education Task Force.

The model bill affirms that the "legislature views the exercise of First Amendment rights on public university campuses in this state as critical components of the education experience for students and requires that each public university in this state ensures free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation." It urges public universities to inform students of their First Amendment protections and to educate all faculty (including administrators, campus police, residential assistants, and professors) of their responsibilities in upholding a culture of open expression through school websites, handbooks, and orientation programs.

It also eliminates so-called free speech zones, a concept popularized in the 1980s and 1990s. "Having a designated free speech zone sounds like a good idea in theory," Handel says. "But they tell students that there's a specific, small area of campus that they can use at a very specific time. They've been utilized as a way to chill freedom of expression."

The legislation also requires institutions to produce annual reports on campus free speech incidents, which will then be submitted to legislators and made available to the public. "A significant amount of taxpayer dollars is appropriated to public institutions of higher education each year," the model bill reads. "As such, this legislature must ensure that all public institutions…recognize freedom of speech as a fundamental right for all."

The bill protects the rights of both speakers and students who protest speakers—and unlike other model legislation, it does not recommend particular disciplinary actions for those who obstruct speech. "If students fear their expressive activities could unnecessarily land them in a campus disciplinary hearing, they may choose to sit on the sidelines," explains ALEC's Shelby Emmett, "The FORUM Act protects speech. It does not punish speech."

Upon passage, states also waive their immunity under the Eleventh Amendment, which prevents individuals from filing lawsuits against states in federal court. This enables students whose First Amendment rights were violated to bring a cause of action in court. If their suit succeeds, they are guaranteed an award of at least $5,000.

Montana is the 14th state to adopt a version of the FORUM Act. Others to pass the legislation include Alabama, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Washington, and West Virginia. Eleven additional states have banned free speech zones on public colleges and universities.

The FORUM Act has predictably drawn opposition. Some critics have objected to a provision saying public universities cannot deny a group funding because of its "actual or anticipated expressive activity," fearing that this would protect religious organizations that discriminate against gays. "The American ideals of free speech must not be used as a sword for discrimination," the political director of the Georgia ACLU told Project Q Atlanta last year.

Others say the legislation restates the obvious. In 2019, Montana's then-Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a similar bill, maintaining that free speech on campuses was already adequately protected by the Constitution. Handel concurs—to a point. "The Constitution is very clear that, regardless of your underlying beliefs, you have the right to speak and be heard," he says. But as long as institutions have failed to uphold this promise, he feels the FORUM Act is necessary to reaffirm speakers' First Amendment rights.

As the Supreme Court reminded us in 1957's Sweezy v. New Hampshire, "Students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die."

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  1. It’s nice to see Reason offering equal time to the opposition in allowing their intellectual enemies to offer arguments in favor of government meddling in free speech moderation. I fully expect one of the regulars here to write a column condemning this unconscionable interference by the government in attempting to regulate free speech, but it’s gracious to allow the other side a free shot.

    1. So now the kids at school will be guaranteed their allotments (entitlements) of free speech? Free speech (AKA freedom from “Cancel Culture”) comes from Facebook, Twitter, Tik-Tok, and Google, right? So now we will be FORCED to have Government Almighty FORCE exerted on Facebook, Twitter, etc. , in order to provide the students with access to a “UBIFS”, a Universal Basic Income of Free Speech!

      As an advocate of free markets, that bothers me a bit. But I’m starting to see the wisdom of many conservative commenters here… “Free speech from Facebook etc.” meets “free markets”, a conundrum much like “irresistible force meets immovable object”. This sounds like a conundrum that only GOD can solve!

      As the GOP (Grand Old Party) gives way to GOD (Grand Old Dickstatorshit), our new GOD is, fortunately, stepping up to the plate, to fix this for us!

      Hey, hey, bros and hos!

      Section 230, out is goes!

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    2. I’m not seeing any of that in the article above.

      1. This law restricts the acts of a subordinate arm of government.
      2. This law waives the state’s immunity from suit for violating the First Amendment.

      This law does nothing to regulate the free speech of private entities. How is anything about this law an “unconscionable interference by the government” or an “attempt[] to regulate free speech”?

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  2. I’m going to use my free speech today to state that Brian Sicknick died of natural causes and that the faggot that posts around here as some variant of “White Knight” is in need of a curb stomping, and maybe a good old fashioned raping.

    1. Good morning to you, too.

    2. Who ruined you? What do you think turned you into a piece of shit?

    1. I was surprised California is on the list of states that have passed such legislation.

  3. This bill designates outdoor spaces at public universities as public forums, eliminates “free speech zones” that relegate open expression to contained areas, and allows a cause of action in court to students whose First Amendment rights are violated.

    “In other words, this bill is VIOLENT HATE SPEECH!”

  4. As the Supreme Court reminded us in 1957’s Sweezy v. New Hampshire, “Students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.”

    I agree. Republican efforts to defund and dismantle higher education are threats to our civilization.

    1. Thanks for acknowledging that environment no longer exists in higher education.

    2. That which we do not directly fund we make illegal?

      Intriguing.

    3. Republican efforts to defund and dismantle higher education are threats to our civilization.

      No, Democrats are.

  5. “The American ideals of free speech must not be used as a sword for discrimination,” I like how speech is violence and their insistence that we “must” not hear anything we don’t want to.

    1. I love how they always want to “protect against discrimination” by discriminating against people they don’t like.

    2. My favorite is” you do not have the right to not be offended.”

  6. Guise, Rikki Schlott has written two decent Libertarianish articles on protecting freedom from government. What is going on here at Reason? OBL must be getting nervous

  7. America’s colleges and universities have become a comedy of woke politics and political correctness that has bled over into other aspects of public life.
    Every day, college professors and instructors dread preparing the next lecture in fear that some little snowflake will be offended, complain to the campus politburo and the professor finds him or herself out of a job, not only out of a job but blacklisted as well.
    Students also suffer from the same Marxist like censorship knowing that everywhere are the campus snitches and other left wing neo-Marxists who take delight in getting others banned or kicked out for “hate speech”.
    Conservative speakers such as Ben Shapiro and even Prof. Jordan Peterson have been banned, speeches disrupted by , as Dr. Peterson described them , little narcissists.
    The First Amendment was not a suggestion. Nor can it be rescinded by government or by anyone else, It is the right to speak one’s mind. It is the right to say things others find offensive. It is the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear. The First Amendment protects all forms of speech including what some may deem hate speech, profane, vulgar and highly offensive to some. In truth the First Amendment was created to protect the speech of those we disagree with.
    That state governments have to get involved to ensure the rights of people who wish to speak their mind are not infringed upon, not even on some college campus.
    Furthermore some people need to get a life, grow up and stop being so infantile.

  8. >>otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die

    the goal of several.

  9. Montana is better, ya hear that New York and California?

    Fuck off democrats.

  10. “The American ideals of free speech must not be used as a sword for discrimination,” the political director of the Georgia ACLU told Project Q Atlanta last year.

    Thanks for the reminder to never give money to the ACLU ever again.

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