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Bill to protect free speech on Maine’s higher education campuses likely to see vote this week

Rep. John Andrews (R – Paris) has introduced the Campus Free Expression Act to protect free speech on Maine college campuses.

AUGUSTA – A bill sponsored by Rep. John Andrews (R – Paris) that would protect free speech on Maine public university and college campuses called the “Campus Free Expression Act” is expected to be voted on by the Maine Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee this week.

The bill aims to protect free speech by prohibiting any public institution of higher education in Maine from restricting any “expressive activity”, which basically means any expression of free speech on a college campus as long as that activity is lawful and does not disrupt the functioning of the institution.

Rep. Andrews testified to the committee that it is important that young people be exposed to a wide range of ideas, and that “In the free market of ideas if you express hatred and bigotry people will see you for the fool that you are. That is the beauty of true free speech, it exposes truth.”

In his testimony, Rep. Andrews referred to some universities not truly protecting free speech on campus, but said that the University of Maine System’s Director of Government and Community Relations had reached out to him to let him know that his proposal was consistent with the system’s current free speech policy.

Testifying in favor of the bill along with Rep. Andrews were the Maine Heritage Policy Center, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and a number of University of Maine students, along with others.

Across the nation, institutions of higher education have grappled with free speech issues as political polarization has increased. Often controlled by politically motivated professors and administrators, some universities have shut down groups and speakers with opposing viewpoints.

Free speech has also been restricted through policies restricting free speech to very limited “free speech zones” in areas provided on campus, essentially isolating free speech to small, sometimes out of the way, areas.

Rep. Andrews’ bill says that any outdoor area on a campus must be a free speech zone as long as the speech does not disrupt the functioning of higher education on the campus.

Tyler Coward, legislative council for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, testified that about 1 in 10 of the four year institutions of higher education across the country maintain the so-called free speech zones that “limit rallies, demonstrations, distribution of literature, petition circulation, and speeches to small and/or out-of-the-way areas of campus.”

Coward said that FIRE (the acronym for his group) opposes such restrictions that “quarantine free speech” and that they are generally inconsistent with the First Amendment.

Testifying for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, Adam Crepeau, a policy analyst for the group, said that they support the proposal because it would “ensure students and speakers are not censored.”

“There have been enough cases around the nation to illustrate that this legislation is necessary to keep public universities in line with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” said Mr. Crepeau.   

The ACLU of Maine, despite their national organization being quoted in other testimony to generally support the proposals laid out by Rep. Andrews in his bill, testified against the bill. Meagan Sway, policy council for the ACLU of Maine, said that their opposition was based on several parts of the language they see as problematic, but that they would withdraw their opposition if those parts of the proposal were amended.

Rep. Andrews’ bill, L.D. 665 is titled “An Act To Enact the Campus Free Expression Act” is scheduled for a work session on Monday, April 29th at 1pm in the Cross Building, Room 208, adjacent to the Maine State House.

The Education and Cultural Affairs committee is expected to vote on a recommendation for the bill to the full Maine House and Senate at that work session.

You can read the full text of An Act To Enact the Campus Free Expression Act by clicking here.

Click here to read the 17 pieces of committee testimony on the proposal.

In addition to Rep. John Andrews (R – Paris) as the primary sponsor, L.D. 665 has nine cosponsors:

Representative Susan Austin (R – Gray)
Representative John DeVeau (R – Caribou)
Senator Bradlee Farrin (R – Somerset)
Representative Billy Bob Faulkingham (R – Winter Harbor)
Representative Justin Fecteau (R – Augusta)
Representative Joshua Morris (R – Turner)
Representative Beth O’Connor (R – Berwick)
Representative Lester Ordway (R – Standish)
Representative Shelley Rudnicki (R – Fairfield)

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