Montana lawmakers are again considering legislation aimed at ensuring unfettered free speech on university and college campuses. 

Members of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday heard testimony on House Bill 218, which would ban “free-speech zones” on public university campuses. The measure’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, said the bill would prevent those institutions from restricting unsanctioned speech to a designated area of campus. 

“This is important because when you create a free-speech zone, you’re not actually creating a free-speech zone, what you’re creating is a large no-free-speech zone,” he said. “Right, because you’re taking all the free speech and moving it to a little area.”

Hopkins sponsored similar legislation that passed with bipartisan support in 2019 but was vetoed by then-Gov. Steve Bullock. In vetoing the legislation, Bullock said the measure was a “solution in search of a problem” for a right that’s already constitutionally protected. He said public university leaders in Montana had assured him that they already have protections in place to ensure protected speech isn’t censored. 

Hopkins and other supporters say the bill is responding to concerns that colleges and universities — or their student bodies — can stifle speech they don’t agree with. That might include allowing a student group to recruit new members only in free-speech zones, or administrators trying to prevent a controversial speaker from coming to campus. Hopkins said the bill would help ensure that all forms of speech and viewpoints can be heard on campus, and that the bill has the backing of student groups, Americans for Prosperity, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana. No one testified against the bill on Wednesday.

“Giving school administrators broad power to censor speech and confine political expression to designated areas threatens everyone’s right to express themselves on college campuses,” Laurel Hesse, of the Montana ACLU, testified Wednesday. 

It’s unclear how many colleges and universities in Montana have such designated free-speech areas, but some students enrolled in Montana universities who testified in favor of the proposal shared experiences they said demonstrated an institutional stifling of their speech. 

Dylan Dean, a Montana State University student and chair for Montana Young Americans for Liberty, said he had recently been talking about free speech at the University of Montana but was told by an administrator to set up his table in the campus free-speech zone, which Dean described as as behind a building in an area not frequented by students. 

At least 15 other states have enacted measures similar to HB 218, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. According to the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University, “free-speech zone” bans making their way through state legislatures mirror legislation pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative organization that drafts legislative proposals and model bills for state lawmakers.  

The House Judiciary Committee didn’t take action on the bill on Wednesday.

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Chris covers Native American issues as a Report for America Corps member based in Billings. He also monitors the Montana Supreme Court, federal courts and criminal justice issues. Before joining MTFP in 2020, Chris most recently covered tribal affairs and Wyoming's Wind River Reservation for the Casper Star-Tribune, and has also reported for the Wisconsin State Journal. Contact Chris at caadland@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 4, and follow @cjaadland on Twitter.