A bill that would add campus free speech rights to North Dakota law received lengthy debate during a Senate Education Committee hearing Monday, March 22.

Among a litany of changes, House Bill 1503 would prohibit activity fee funding discrimination based on a student organization’s viewpoint and allow speakers on campus regardless of their views. Additionally, it would eliminate free-speech zones on college campuses, though no campuses in the North Dakota University System have free-speech zones.

A number of higher education leaders who opposed the bill said the legislation was unnecessary because most of these changes already have been made, or are in the process of being made, in the system’s policy. Additionally, they noted that putting these changes into law would make it more difficult for changes to be made in the future if they need to be updated due to federal law changes. That could leave campuses, or the system overall, vulnerable to a lawsuit.

“Despite the fact that our campuses have not encountered any substantiated cases of restrictions being placed on free speech, have had no speakers shouted down, no visitors assaulted, no ‘disinvited’ speakers, and no student complaints for at least the last 12 years, which is remarkable in the current political environment, there are still external forces that continue to perpetuate the notion that North Dakota colleges and universities are actively working against free speech and freedom of expression. While that may be true of certain coastal institutions, this is simply not true of NDUS institutions,” said Lisa Johnson, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs in the NDUS.

However, proponents of the bill, notably a number of religious-related organizations, say the bill strengthens free speech protections for all students and puts those protections into law.

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The bill was originally introduced by Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, with other House and Senate co-sponsors. It passed the House by a 65-29 vote.

Koppelman, who serves as speaker of the house, said the bill came about relatively late in the legislative process.

“(The bill) is not targeting anyone, it is not aimed at anyone, it is not intended to be punitive at any North Dakota institution of higher education,” he said.

He said if he has one regret about the process it's that he didn’t reach out to the university system prior to the bill’s introduction.

The bill comes after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a national, nonpartisan and nonprofit organization focused on campus free speech, did an analysis of North Dakota State’s free speech policy.

Free speech and free speech policies have been a major talking point across the country over the past several years, especially as larger campuses on the coasts deal with large student protests over speakers.

The Legislature passed a free speech bill during the last legislative session, but FIRE’s legislative and policy director, Joe Cohn, called the bill flawed and noted the current bill being discussed would help strengthen campus free speech for students.

Another talking point among supporters of the bill was opposition to campus “security fees” that some schools impose on organizations hosting controversial or unpopular speakers on the theory that they should pay for extra security the colleges deem necessary due to the likelihood of demonstrations and disruption of the events. FIRE opposes such fees.

Johnson said the university system has instructed campuses not to impose such fees without approval of their campus attorney.

The university system said it has worked with FIRE before, but Johnson said it had not been contacted by the organization about the assessment beforehand and was not aware of any of the campuses being contacted about it.

The committee took no action on the bill Monday.