Lawmaker’s bill aims to guard free speech at Arizona universities. Critics decry censoring
Arizona’s public universities would be required to follow guidelines for speeches and debates on public policy issues under a bill proposed at the Legislature.
House Bill 2238, sponsored by Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, would require the Arizona Board of Regents to establish an Office of Public Policy Events at each university.
That office would oversee the organizing and staging of debates, lectures and discussions with guests from “multiple, divergent and opposing perspectives.”
The bill does not establish a required number of events. But every debate, forum or lecture would have to be recorded and stored online for at least five years. The office also must keep permanent copies of videos and maintain a public calendar that lists past and future events.
The Arizona Board of Regents has not taken a position on the bill. Representatives from Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University declined to comment.
Kern said the bill is needed to educate students on public policy issues that are widely debated.
“I want to ensure that free speech is being conducted on our campuses, and I think this bill would attempt that,” Kern said. “By allowing both viewpoints, or all viewpoints on campuses … prepares students to be good American citizens.”
Keeping records of all speakers will allow the universities to ensure students hear many perspectives on campuses, Kern said.
The Arizona American Civil Liberties Union disagrees.
Amanda Parris, policy counsel for the ACLU of Arizona, said the proposed bill would hinder students’ and speakers’ First Amendment rights.
The bill would indirectly censor speech by tracking, monitoring and recording “First Amendment activity to the point of inhibiting people’s freedom of speech,” she said.
Collected information from searchable databases could act as way for legislators to “police” students from expressing their thoughts by regulating who speaks on campuses, she said.
By mandating the recording and posting of every debate, lecture and group forum online, students may be intimidated from asking questions. Additionally, speakers may not visit a student club if they know they will become part of a government database, she said.
“A young college student is nervous as it is to express new ideas, ask questions, or share controversial points of view without the government watching and recording, and posting it all publicly for a minimum of five years,” Parris said in an email.
According to the bill, student groups and academic departments are not required to keep a video record of speakers.
Kern’s proposed bill originates from a model campus intellectual diversity bill authored by Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
Kurtz said in an email that he didn’t think students were hearing both sides of public issues that “Americans care most about.”
“The problem of bias at colleges and universities is national,” he said. “With only rare exceptions nowadays, elite private universities and public university systems alike are politically one-sided. Higher education is supposed to nurture a marketplace of ideas, a set of diverse and competing perspectives that permit students to build worldviews based on informed choice. If we bulldoze the marketplace of ideas, we’re left with indoctrination rather than education.
“I figured that if we could bring in thoughtful advocates on both sides of the issues that divide us, students would get used to civil disagreement,” Kurtz said. “Regularizing debate would lower the emotional temperature and free everyone up to speak.”
Model legislation is a policy idea that originates often with a special interest group and is introduced by policy makers, like state legislatures, across the country.
Kurtz described Kern as a “pioneering figure” in campus speech efforts with his sponsoring of House Bill 2615, which was signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey in 2016. Kern’s legislation effectively makes the entire campus of a community college or university a free-speech zone, rather than having such activities limited to prescribed areas.
Free speech is crucial in preparing students for life after university because “out in the real world, there’s not just one viewpoint, there’s different viewpoints on any issue,” Kern said.
Students develop a better worldview when exposed to opposing viewpoints, Kurtz said.
“Without free speech, we get passive, unthinking followers instead of active and intelligent citizens,” he said.