College free speech bill signed into law

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With the governor’s signature, a new free speech policy governing the state’s 11 public colleges and universities is now law.

“North Dakota is ahead of the curve compared to a vast majority of states,” said Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE.

The passage of HB 1503 is a win for those at the FIRE, which lobbies state legislatures to enact college free speech policies.

“No bill is a silver bullet. We can’t expect a utopia, but this is a major leap forward,” Cohn said.

Among the many changes the bill makes, it says schools can’t limit speech to certain areas of campus known as “free speech zones”; deny activity fee funding to a student group based on its viewpoint or prohibit guest speakers based on their views or content of the speech.

But those at the North Dakota University System say those things weren’t happening anyway.

“There were no reports of violations of first amendment rights, freedom of speech, at any of our institutions for the last 12 years,” North Dakota University System Vice Chancellor for Academic/Student Affairs Lisa Johnson said.

She says no campuses have free speech zones, either — but Cohn says preventing problems and correcting bad policy is important.

“While that wasn’t addressing a current problem in North Dakota, getting the law right is important, and keeping it right for the future is important, too,” Cohn said.

Johnson says now that it’s law, the state board of higher education can no longer adjust policy as needed, but will have to wait for the legislature to convene. She says the universities are working to adjust policy to be in compliance with the new law.

“I just wish to convey our compliance. I appreciate the opportunity to advocate for our position. The outcome was not in our favor, but we are certainly willing to adjust to those restrictions,” Johnson said.

The bill officially takes effect on Aug. 1. Burgum signed the bill Friday, and prior to that, it passed 65 to 29 in the House and 35 to 12 in the Senate.

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