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EDITORIAL: Enact law to make college great again

February 4, 2017 Updated: February 4, 2017 at 1:36 pm
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The college campus should provide a free and peaceable marketplace of diverse religious, political, cultural and philosophical ideas as a foundation to learning.

All over the country, university administrators have endangered free speech. They have elevated feelings and oversensitivity as higher causes than upholding the First Amendment. Beyond creating "safe spaces" for students to escape sights and sounds they don't like, universities have banished students with potentially unpopular or unauthorized ideas to "free speech zones."

The "free speech zone" is typically small and away from most students. Despite the clever name, it is intentionally and effectively a censorship tool.

Americans have fought and died for two-plus centuries to preserve a country that made free speech the first order of business in its Bill of Rights. The founders did not envision free expression in designated closets. They wrote a First Amendment creating a free speech zone from north to south, and from sea to shining sea.

State Senate Bill 62 would place Colorado among at least three other states — Virginia, Arizona and Missouri — that have outlawed "free speech zones" on state campuses.

One impetus for the bill involves the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs sending student Brandon Leiser to a "free speech zone" for campaigning on the school's west lawn for then-U.S. Senate candidate Darryl Glenn. A recording captured a campus officer telling Leiser and a fellow pamphleteer "people feel like they're imposed upon when they just want to go to their class."

A UCCS lawyer labeled the message "unscheduled speech," as reported by national student publication The College Fix.

The Fix calculated the "free speech zone" as a 0.00002 percent slice of the campus. If so, the Glenn message was scrubbed from 99.99998 percent of campus.

The student government of CU Boulder adopted a unanimous resolution against free speech zones that says the First Amendment applies to every square inch of campus.

"These zones are contrary to the very missions of universities," wrote state Sen. Tim Neville, a Republican sponsor of SB-62.

Neville assures his bill will protect the authority of law enforcement to impose "reasonable restrictions" on disruptive activities that threaten property, human safety and civil discourse. That's easy enough, because violent and/or threatening communication is not "free speech." Just as "free speech zones" curtail free speech, so do angry activist mobs jeopardizing safety and civility.

In a famous letter to incoming freshmen last year, University of Chicago Dean John Ellison said he would not provide "safe spaces" as retreats from ideas. It was the highbrow precursor to "suck it up, buttercup" and, hopefully, the first domino in the collapse of widespread campus censorship.

Colorado's SB-62 would protect the free exchange of ideas. It would restore free speech as a cause higher than coddling. It could make college students great again, immersing them in the bygone academic era of conflicting ideas, meaningful discourse and tolerance.

Legislators and Gov. John Hickenlooper should carefully review this bill, ensuring it preserves options for authorities to uphold the peace on Colorado campuses. Then they should make it law and help restore free speech to academe.

The gazette editorial board

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