On July 14, Gov. Jay Nixon signed Senate Bill 93, also known as the “Campus Free Expression Act.” The bill expands free speech zones on the campuses of public institutions of higher education in Missouri, such as MU’s Speakers Circle, and allows protests and speeches to take place on any outdoor space.
By eliminating free speech zones, expressive acts, such as protests and speeches, can be held throughout campuses, making college campuses “traditional public forums,” according to the bill. The bill was passed unanimously in the state Senate, making Missouri the second state along with Virginia to have passed legislation of this kind to protect the First Amendment rights of students on college campuses.
Speakers Circle is a free speech zone staple of student life at MU with its mix of speakers and even its own Twitter account,.
The university is currently reviewing the legislation to determine if university policies need to be changed.
“Over our history, we have always accommodated individuals and groups who wanted to express themselves publicly,” MU spokesman Christian Basi said in an email. “Typically, this has been done at Speakers Circle in the center of our campus where individuals can be most visible.”
Per the 2014-15 M-Book, Peace Park, Lowry Mall and Carnahan Quadrangle all required permits while no permits are necessary for Speakers Circle. The Francis Quadrangle has been restricted to official university events since the late 1980s after MU students built a Shantytown on the Quad to protest Apartheid in South Africa.
The Quad is currently limited because of the space’s historical significance. Joe Cohn, the Legislative and Policy Director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that helped draft and testify for the bill, said that historical significance is not enough of a justification to limit free speech in an area.
“A public university cannot hide behind the historical significance of a location to justify restricting speech there,” Cohn said. “The Washington Mall and the area around Independence Hall are both historically significant locations, used throughout our nation’s history for expressive purposes. People can’t credibly argue that the history of those locations justifies censorship.”
While MU might have a recognized free speech zone, the need for the bill arose when the Cohn’s organization approached Emery and drew his attention to a potential problem on the Missouri State University — West Plains. The university has only a basketball court as the designated free speech zone on campus, said state Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamer, who sponsored the bill.
The bill, which was supported by state Rep. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, allows public institutions of higher education to maintain reasonable time, manner and place restrictions in order to make sure expressive activities do not disrupt classes or the functioning of the institution. As outlined in the bill, students whose expressive rights were violated may take the institution to court and may also receive at least $500 to recover compensatory damages, reasonable court costs and attorney fees, with an additional $50 for each day the violation continues.
Emery said he felt it was necessary to address the issue early on in Missouri. The bill only affects public institutions of higher education as they are under the jurisdiction of state legislature and are, in part, funded by public dollars.
The clause that allows students to receive compensatory funds if their freedom of speech is violated was essential, Emery said. He explained that a problem with these types of cases is how they are handled in court.
Although special interest attorneys from FIRE deal with these cases, it is more difficult for students to find representation if lawyers aren’t sure they will be provided with compensation Emery said. This way, if a case has merit, a lawyer will feel more comfortable taking it on and knowing that they won’t be doing the case pro bono.
Another reason for the clause is that it holds universities accountable.
“We certainly want to put statutes in place that acknowledge that these constitutional rights need to be observed by the university, but we also want there to be that civil threat that says if you do violate this law and you break it, you really might be subject to a penalty, you really could be taken to court,” Emery said.
Emery said that overall there was little conflict in introducing and passing the bill since it was introduced at the beginning of 2015. Some legislators did raise concerns over whether the legislation was necessary.
Sarah Rossi, director of Advocacy and Policy for American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, an organization that helped support the bill, said that legislators were hesitant at first towards hate speech or demonstrations that may result from the passing of the bill. Despite legislators’ concerns, the bill unanimously passed.
“I think the bipartisan support came from that frame of mind, that the constitution is meant to protect everybody, not just people we agree with,” Rossi said.
Emery said he doesn’t believe every state should be required to implement legislation like the Campus Free Expression Act; however, he does think that the recent passing of the bill will have an influence far beyond state borders.
“I do think that the impact of passing this legislation in a state, or two, or three, or five, has a significant impact across the country, because you’ll see universities paying more attention, and saying ‘You know we really do need to be mindful of this and we do need to make sure we don’t infringe on freedom of speech,’” Emery said.
While the bill protects the freedom of speech of students, the wording of the bill might make some people wary of the bill’s purpose at first glance. Rossi acknowledged that while bill titles can often be disingenuous, the Campus Free Expression Act assures students’ of their First Amendment rights.
“I think calling it the abolition of free speech zones makes it sound like a bad thing, when it’s actually a really good thing for student-free expression rights,” Rossi said.