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Bill introduced in General Assembly to protect free speech at public colleges

Delegate, free speech experts say bill follows nationwide censorship instances

<p>The bill is currently awaiting a vote in the house committee for courts of justice.</p>

The bill is currently awaiting a vote in the house committee for courts of justice.

A bill has been introduced in the Virginia House of Delegates to protect free speech on college campuses.

Del. Steve Landes (R-Weyer’s Cave) introduced the relatively short bill, which protects the right of individuals to free speech at public universities.

“Except as otherwise permitted by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, no public institution of higher education shall abridge the freedom of any individual, including enrolled students, faculty and other employees, and invited guests, to speak on campus,” the text of the proposed legislation reads.

Landes said he is sponsoring the bill to “encourage healthy debate and prevent censorship of contrary viewpoints or perceived controversial speech.”

He cited instances of censorship from around the country by providing a link to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s website, which tracks instances of what it believes to be censorship of free speech. Cases featured on the website include DePaul University’s ban on political chalking and two conservative political speakers, and the University of Missouri preventing a student group from selling t-shirts featuring cannabis images.

“While free speech on college campuses is theoretically protected by the First Amendment, there have been instances where it has been suppressed,” Landes said in an email statement. “This legislation will safeguard speech on our campuses and guarantee that our students are exposed to a wide variety of ideas and opinions and afforded the opportunity to express themselves as well.”

The proposed bill does not grant any new rights so much as provide additional legal protection for the right to free speech as outlined in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution.

Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at FIRE, said the proposed legislation would provide more of an “obligation to defend people’s right to engage in protected expressive activities.”

Josh Wheeler, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said the bill will have a minimal practical effect.

“There is a general attitude right now on college campuses that politically conservative voices are being discriminated against,” Wheeler said. “This bill is a reaction to that.”

Del. Mark Cole (R-Spotsylvania), one of the co-patrons of the bill, also suggested there is a sentiment being held that there is a movement to silence conservative speech on college campuses.

“HB 1401 seeks to protect such speech,” Cole said in an email statement.

John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute and a constitutional attorney, noted efforts to censor controversial speakers on campuses.

“Campuses across the country are restricting so-called controversial speakers across the country,” Whitehead said. “The right to free speech forces you to hear other viewpoints, think it out and debate.”

While the bill only has a Republican patron and only Republican co-patrons, Cohn said he does not think the bill, if enacted, would have a partisan effect on college campuses.

“Censorship is not a partisan action,” Cohn said. “People censor who they disagree with on both sides of the political spectrum.”

The bill is currently awaiting a vote in the house committee for courts of justice.

When asked for comment on the bill, committee member and House Minority Leader David Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said President Donald Trump threatens free speech.

"Free speech is a core value on which this nation was founded, yet it is indeed under threat by a new president who bullies his critics and threatens to jail his political opponents,” Toscano said in a statement Friday. “While the First Amendment protects campus speech, we hope the Republican caucus will join us in fighting to protect the First Amendment under President Trump."

Katie Baker, Virginia House Democratic Caucus communications director, could not yet confirm whether Toscano would support the bill.

The Cavalier Daily also reached out to the other Democratic members of the committee for comment on the bill, but did not receive any responses. This article will be updated should any of them respond.

This article has been updated with Del. David Toscano's statement.