MSU Wild

Students travel between classes at Montana State University in this file photo.

The Montana House has passed a bill calling on the state’s public colleges to protect free speech on campus or risk lawsuits and court fines.

A scaled back version of House Bill 735, sponsored by Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, was approved by the House on Saturday 78-20. It will now be considered in the Senate.

The bill would protect peaceful assembly, protests, speeches, guest speakers, handing out flyers, carrying signs and circulating petitions. It would prohibit campuses from setting aside certain outdoor areas as “free speech zones,” if that meant free speech would be banned outside the limited zone.

“Let freedom ring,” Hopkins told the House Judiciary Committee last week.

The bill’s original version criticized colleges in Montana and elsewhere for “failing to provide adequate safeguards for First Amendment rights of students” and “stifling of expression on campus.”

Originally it would have barred discrimination against religious, political or ideological student organizations, and required campuses to take several steps, including staff training and writing reports.

However those original sections and the “stifling” criticism were removed by the Judiciary Committee.

The Montana University System didn’t testify for or against the bill.

The commissioner of higher education’s office worked with Hopkins to amend the bill, said Tracy Ellig, chief lobbyist for Montana State University.

“The university system agrees with Rep. Hopkins’ premise, which is the First Amendment is vitally important to a university education,” Ellig said in an email. “The diversity of thought inherent in the freedom of speech is a vital part of a university education.”

The bill arises at a time when conservatives nationally charge that liberal universities are trying to shut down conservative speakers and student groups. They point to the University of California at Berkeley, where in 2017 the campus canceled an appearance by provocative right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, invited by College Republicans, because of violent protests by masked anti-fascists who smashed windows and set fires.

President Donald Trump last month ordered colleges to protect free speech or risk losing billions in federal research funding. In a White House ceremony, Trump said many universities “have become increasingly hostile to free speech and to the First Amendment.”

The original HB 735 would have required campuses to do several things, like training professors, staff and administrators about free speech, and requiring campuses to write reports on their efforts to conform to the free speech bill.

But the Legislature telling campuses what to do ran up against the Montana Constitution, which gives the Board of Regents full control over state campuses. The bill was amended to change “the university shall” clauses to saying it “may.”

The bill recognizes that campuses can impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of free speech events — if the restrictions are content-neutral and narrowly tailored to avoid disruptions of classes and normal operations.

The bill would let a person or a student organization sue the campus for damages, including university employees acting in their official capacities who violate the proposed law. If a court finds a campus in violation, the judge shall impose at least $5,000 in damages.

The bill would strip campuses of immunity from lawsuits. The state of Montana would also waive immunity and consent to being sued in federal court.

MSU has been sued in federal court by a former male student who charged the university violated his free speech and other constitutional rights by banning him from the Bozeman campus after he privately voiced objections to transgenderism, comments that were taken as threats.

A University of Montana student filed a grievance last year against the university claiming her free speech rights were violated after students from a class harassed her while she handed out literature about the conservative political group Turning Point. And UM was criticized when the journalism dean declined to sponsor a controversial conservative speaker, citing the potential to offend students because of his past criticisms of LGBT, Muslim, feminist and minority students.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

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