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Free Speech Panel: How Utah Universities Can Help Students Understand Their Rights

Four people on a panel: Utah State University held a free speech discussion. The panel left to right: Michael Melendez the Libertas director of policy, Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, Josh Johnson, USU’s Student Association VP for diversity and clubs, an
Lauren Bennett
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All of Utah’s universities have policies that unconstitutionally restrict free speech, said Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, at a free speech panel held Thursday at Utah State University.

“I think students need to understand the value of free speech and understand the law behind free speech,” she said. “We value respect and respectful tones in our discourse but the law does not allow the university to shut down speech that is protected. Even if it’s offensive to some – even if it’s crude, rude.”

The rest of the panel was composed of Michelle Bogdan-Holt, USU’s Access and Diversity Center’s director, Josh Johnson, USU’s Student Association VP for diversity and clubs, and Michael Melendez the Libertas director of policy.

Geoffrey Landward, an assistant commissioner of higher education for policy and law, moderated the panel discussion. What does he think universities should do to address free speech?

“Talk about it,” he said. “Talk about it and talk about it. Give every opportunity you can – in the classrooms, on campus – to explain to students what this freedom means to them. We probably wouldn’t have any of the other amendments we have if we didn’t have this first one. And so discussing it, explaining why it’s important, explaining the dangers of curtailing it, I think is the most important thing you can do at a university.”

Coleman sponsored a successful bill last year to make all outside areas on university campuses in Utah “public forums.” She said the state’s universities need to address policies that restrict free speech.

“First of all they need to change their policies,” Coleman said. “There are policies in all of our state universities that do unconstitutionally restrict free speech and I think as long as those exist, they confuse students in understanding what their rights are.”

A big topic of discussion on the panel was hate speech.

“Do people need to be protected from hate speech? Absolutely, I think that they do. Hate speech is heinous, it’s harmful and it should be through whatever means we can do it, discouraged, snuffed out. But to open the door to government to censor any speech is too dangerous to take that risk.”

Coleman gave another reason why speech rights must be protected – they are powerful in impacting change in government.

“The minority voices have been powerful in their speech rights to really affect great advances in civil rights over time and great advances in public policy. We want to protect those rights to speak – whether we agree with them or no,” Coleman said.

A database of U.S. university speech policies is available here.