SALT LAKE CITY — A House committee endorsed a bill Tuesday attempting to strike a balance between protected and unprotected speech on college campuses in Utah.
"If you want to know if we have a problem in Utah, we absolutely have some questionable policies that reflect some limits on constitutionally protected speech," said Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan.
HB398would put into law free speech standards established by the U.S. Supreme Court. The committee voted 7-1 to move the bill to the House floor.
"In America, we have near limitless speech rights. There are very limited cases where speech is not protected. … But what we do today with this bill is we identify sort of where that line is," she told the House Judiciary Committee.
The bill defines harassing speech as oral or written communication that is so "severe, pervasive and objectionally offensive" that it undermines or detracts from a student's experience and denies access to education. It would prohibit a school from punishing a student whose speech does not rise to that level.
Geoff Landward, Utah Board of Regents assistant commissioner for policy and planning, told the committee the standard in the bill conflicts with U.S. Department of Education guidelines for free speech on college campuses.
He said he applauds the effort to find a clear line for when schools need to intervene when there might be harassment between students and when not to because the speech is protected. But the question, he said, becomes what is the right standard.
If the bill becomes law while schools have other federal guidance in place, it puts them in the position of being sued over one or the other, so they're looking for more clarity from the federal government before accepting the legislation as the right standard, Landward said.
Coleman said U.S. Supreme Court rulings trump federal guidelines and the bill does help clarify the standards.
"This is legislation for our time," she said.