GRAND FORKS — A bill described by its sponsor as a means to ensure freedom of speech in North Dakota higher education by rejecting “political correctness gone crazy” has passed in the state House.
Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, sponsor of House Bill 1329, said the proposed legislation is a response to an “attitude that free speech is not free speech” on campuses where he said expression is discouraged by university policy.
Though the House Education Committee gave a “do not pass” recommendation, the measure passed 65 to 25 on Monday. It needed 48 votes to pass the House.
Becker defined the term “safe space” as a designated location where “the rules guard each person’s sense of self-respect, dignity and feelings” by restricting discourse on a litany of subjects ranging from LGBT identity to political affiliation.
“There is an atmosphere of political correctness and social justice that will lead to safe spaces and this whole concept on every campus,” Becker said. “We have to put a stop to it now.”
HB 1329 would “confirm free speech as a fundamental right” while requiring the State Board of Higher Education, the governing body of the North Dakota University System, to adopt a policy on free speech to apply to all NDUS students.
That policy would commit the SBHE-controlled institutions to “free and open inquiry by students in all matters” while prohibiting restrictions of speech except in cases in which speech would involve violations of law or disrupt institutional functions. The free-speech policy would be required to contain a “bill of student rights” which would bar NDUS entities from subjecting students to “any nonacademic punishment, discipline or censorship” for an act of lawful expression.
Becker cited the University of North Dakota’s Social Justice Living-Learning Community as a point where safe-space concepts have found a home in the NDUS. The Social Justice LLC is one of six residential areas located within campus residence halls. It is described in UND housing information as a place focused on inclusion and social justice issues, including “bringing about positive change.”
Becker suggested “it is not you or me who decides what positive change is.”
“If we disagree with what they think, our ideas have no place on campus,” he said. “They will not be tolerated.”
Becker also cited the violence seen last week during protests of controversial right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos at UC-Berkeley as an outgrowth of anti-speech rhetoric on university campuses.
The event for Yiannopoulos eventually was canceled in light of mounting security concerns. A December presentation by the same speaker at North Dakota State University was canceled due to organizational difficulties including event security costs.
Education Committee member Rep. Denton Zubke, R-Watford City, began discussion of the bill by asking the assembled representatives to support the committee by voting against the proposal.
Zubke said committee members felt the right to free speech is sufficiently detailed in the U.S. Constitution.
“It’s frequently under attack, and the courts have interpreted it on many occasions,” said Zubke of free speech. “One of the committee’s concerns was the specificity of it in this bill. Another was trying to define something already in the Constitution.”
Rep. Mark Owens, R-Grand Forks, said he didn’t disagree with the concept of protecting speech on campuses, but deemed the bill “unnecessary.”
“You already have the right to freedom of speech, but if you don’t fight for it, this isn’t going to do any good in reiterating it in state law and being so specific,” Owens said. “In the final analysis, we believed this was nothing more than saying the same thing over again.”
Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, agreed the bill was reiterative but spoke in favor of it regardless.
“This bill does little more than restate the Constitution of the United States,” Kasper said. “But unfortunately, in many cases, the Constitution is not being followed and is not being protected.”
Kasper said the bill presented a means of enabling administrative bodies on NDUS campuses to “stand up to political correctness.”
This article first appeared on The Bismark Tribune.