As we prepare to celebrate Independence Day, I find it ironic that freedom of speech on Montana's college campuses is not secure, but in fact limited.
Montana had a great opportunity to fix this but unfortunately, on May 7, Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a campus free speech bill (House Bill 735) even though it received strong bipartisan support. In fact, the bill passed with a super-majority in the Montana House (76-20) and a clear majority in the Senate (31-19). It's logical to ask then, why?
Free speech is for everyone, and the Montana Legislature recognized that fact. Restricting speech on a campus to "free speech zones" impedes students from gathering to thoroughly engage in discussion and civil debate on any area of a public university's grounds.
At the University of Montana, and according to UM's Event Services Policy, the Mansfield Library Mall has been "set aside as a free speech area that can be reserved ahead of time, subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions." Any sensible, rational person could support the need for the university to have minimal disruptions or interference with academic or administrative activities. However, restricting free speech to the Mansfield Library Mall area is not the answer.
Encouraging civil, respectful discourse should be the norm at any college or university, where students should always be engaging in the marketplace of ideas, entertaining different viewpoints, and thinking critically. Why would we limit the geography on which that happens? And exactly how does that work at a public institution?
In addition, the free speech area at UM must be scheduled on a "first-come, first-served basis" and speakers may also "be limited in the amount of time assigned so that others may use the area." Does this sound like the First Amendment to you?
The governor, in his letter explaining his veto, noted, "I have conferred with university leaders in our state and have been assured that their policies are entirely consistent with — and, indeed, promote — our constitutional values of free speech and free assembly." Really?
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) conducts annual reviews of written policies that affect students' expressive rights. Their findings are available online in their Spotlight database. Had the governor visited the website — even briefly — he would have noted that all four of the public institutions they rate in Montana have at least one written policy that infringes on students' expressive rights. Montana State University, Montana Tech of the University of Montana and UM Western have yellow light speech code ratings. The University of Montana has a red light rating.
What's even more noteworthy is that campus free speech legislation was on the table in nine states this year and Montana was the only state in which it did not pass. This is not only disheartening, it is embarrassing.
The veto override vote that took place on June 14 was also a disappointment. Several legislators who supported the bill did not submit ballots and some of those who initially voted in the affirmative changed their vote on the override ballot. It's astounding that the First Amendment is not being upheld in this state. This is not a partisan issue. It was noted earlier in this opinion and I note it again here: Free speech is for everyone.
Frederick Douglass, the American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer and statesman, once said, "To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker."
We must double down on our efforts to restore and uphold free speech on our campuses.