SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would create limited rule-making authority over the Utah System of Higher Education with respect to civil liberties issues was endorsed by the House Education Committee on Monday.
HB116 moves to the House for further consideration.
The bill's sponsor Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, said although the state system of higher education is not subject to rule-making, HB116 carves out "an exception to the exception" because college students' exercise of their civil liberties should be expressly protected by the Utah Legislature.
HB116 was the product of the Administrative Rules Review Committee, Coleman said.
The state's system of higher education and individual campuses may have policies with respect to civil liberties and complaint processes when students believe their rights have been violated, but policies don't have the same legal heft as rules, Coleman said.
"We end up with something that is weak on the legal aspects of it," she said.
Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, said she, too, served on the review committee, and it found no campus policies that were unconstitutional.
Coleman agreed but said the larger issue before the committee was whether higher education should "enjoy the exemption" from rule-making.
Moss asked whether there was an incident that precipitated the review.
Coleman responded, "It didn’t come out of the clear blue sky."
Dixie State University paid $50,000 and agreed to less-restrictive free speech policies to settle a lawsuit filed in 2015 by students who alleged their efforts to host a club rally was thwarted by unconstitutional campus rules.
The university's board of trustees also adopted a new free speech policy that administrators said attempts to balance free speech rights with civility and community values on campus, according to press accounts.
While there was general agreement legislators should support students' civil liberties, some people who attended the committee meeting said HB116 is a solution in search of a problem.
Paul Tayler, American Federation of Teachers vice president for higher education employees, asked, "Is there any real purpose? Is there any formal study that has been made that would indicate this has been a problem, specifically here in our educational system in Utah?"
But others including Molly Davis of the Libertas Institute said lawmakers have few greater duties than standing up for civil liberties.
"We think if there's anything Utah should be proactively advocating for it should be protection of civil rights on college campuses," Davis said.
Spencer Jenkins, assistant commissioner of public affairs for the Utah System of Higher Education, said HB116 provides "a nice balance between allowing the institutions the ability to adopt policies, the types of policies that deal with civil liberties, yet the added measure of transparency."
The system is willing to spend the year reviewing its policies and refining rules to be consistent with the statute, Jenkins said.
"We don't feel like any of our policies necessarily cause problems in terms of civil liberties but we're willing to deal with this to add a level of transparency," he said.