Arizona enacts effective campus free speech legislation

My friend Stanley Kurtz has been working tirelessly throughout the U.S. to persuade state legislatures to pass effective legislation protecting campus free speech at public universities. To be effective, the legislation must go beyond simply banning restrictive speech codes and so-called free speech zones (limited areas where controversial speech is permitted), important though such bans are. It must also establish a system designed to discipline students who engage in speaker shout-downs, and provide for effective oversight to make sure that college administrators adhere to the law.

Working with the Goldwater Institute, Stanley has formulated model legislation that contains all of these features. Working with allies in state legislatures, Stanley is promoting that legislation.

Stanley reports that late last month Arizona governor Doug Ducey signed such a bill into law. In addition, to banning restrictive speech codes and free speech zones, the new Arizona law affirms the principle that universities, at the official institutional level, ought to remain neutral on public policy controversies.

In addition, it sets up a system designed to discipline students who engage in speaker shout-downs (while also strongly protecting the rights of the accused). It discourages the use of security fees as a backdoor censorship tactic. And it creates an oversight system based in the Board of Regents to ensure that administrators comply.

Public universities in Arizona are still able to impose time, place, and manner restrictions on speech. But they are permitted to do so only if the restrictions are “necessary to achieve a compelling governmental interest” and are “the least restrictive means” for doing so.

Arizona and North Carolina have now passed campus free speech laws based on the Goldwater model. The Georgia legislature passed a Goldwater-based bill last month that awaits the governor’s signature. The Wisconsin Board of Regents has adopted a discipline policy for shout-downs based on the Goldwater model, and Goldwater-based bills have been introduced in several additional states as well.

Other states have adopted laws limited to abolishing speech codes and zones. But that’s not to say that they won’t eventually shift to the Goldwater model.

In fact, Arizona abolished so-called free speech zones in 2016. Two years later, it addressed the problem of shout-downs through a Goldwater bill. Given the feeble way in which many administrators at public universities deal with shout-downs and other free speech issues, this might well become the pattern nationally.

Legislators are better advised to adopt the Goldwater approach in the first instance.

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