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State Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, will push for an academic free speech bill for college and university campuses during the next legislative session.

House Bill 3055, also called the campus free expression act, would spell out free speech rights on Washington college campuses.

The bill describes the need for free expression on campus, explains what free expression is and would issue penalties for those in violation of free expression on campus.

Manweller said he has been aware of incidents at universities around the country where free speech seemed to be under attack, and when he saw what happened at the University of Missouri and Yale, he knew something needed to be done in Washington.

“Finally when the Washington Post did the exposé on syllabi at Washington State University, I realized the problem was at home as much as anywhere else,” Manweller said.

The Washington Post’s September article looked at a syllabus for a “Women and Popular Culture” class at WSU and found that it included a list of unacceptable words in class, phrases like “the Man” and “colored people,” or an unacceptable reference to women and men as females or males. The Washington Post reported the syllabus said repeated use of those off-limit phrases could lead to failure of the assignment or class.

That restriction was found to limit the students’ right to free speech and school administration issued a statement against it.

A place to grow

Manweller, a political science professor at CWU, said he believes college campuses are places where people should be able to say controversial things or statements that might not be content-neutral.

“My view is on college campuses, that’s where you should be talking about those things,” Manweller said. “Colleges and universities are where we’re supposed to talk about the most uncomfortable things.”

Manweller said colleges are supposed to make people feel uncomfortable so they can learn.

“They’re supposed to come in with preconceived notions and values and we’re supposed to challenge you because that’s where you grow,” he said.

Support

Manweller started working on the bill when the Legislature was still in session last year.

“I started working with Democrats and leadership in higher ed, student groups, letting them know this was something I was going to work on, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), Association for Justice, just trying to make sure everyone had a seat,” he said.

Manweller said the bill has been signed by every Republican member of the House Higher Education Committee and other members in education like a professor at Gonzaga. The next step is to meet with Democrats, and he hopes to have a bipartisan sponsorship soon.

“I think what the bill is trying to do is remind us that the free speech movement in America was born on university campuses and we should be nurturing and fostering free speech, not creating an almost Neo-McCarthyism in the 21st century,” he said.

At CWU

Cynthia Mitchell, a journalism professor who teaches the Communication Ethics and the First Amendment class at Central Washington University, said overall the university has a “decent environment for free expression.” She didn’t get into specifics on Manweller’s bill.

Many of the issues where she sees free speech rights as questionable at CWU are in the Student Union and Recreation Center.

The tabling requirements at the SURC are one issue she’s found troubling because they require students to be affiliated with a class or a club to be able to get an informational table, thus eliminating individual students’ rights to share petitions or other information.

“I don’t feel like they’d pass muster if you challenged it,” Mitchell said.

The SURC is restrictive with activities on the patio, which should serve as a place for a traditional public forum, Mitchell said, adding the scheduling offices have provided mixed messages about the rules for its use.

Rules for posting content on bulletin boards around campus also are restrictive. Mitchell’s class wanted to do a First Amendment campaign with posters, but was told they weren’t allowed to because the space was reserved for events. Mitchell said organizations on the second floor of the SURC have put out issue campaigns before on the bulletin boards and the rule is not consistent.

“Inside the SURC because it’s paid for with student funds, I feel like they should be more open to students’ expressions,” Mitchell said, adding that she was glad the SURC didn’t shut down a Black Lives Matter protest earlier this quarter.

On Nov. 12 students from several groups on campus gathered in the SURC in support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and called to light some of the issues they deal with around campus. They demanded to speak to President James Gaudino, who told them he would work to address their concerns.

After seeing the SURC’s response from the Black Rights Matter movement, Mitchell said she thinks now is the time to address free speech restrictions in the SURC, though she wants it to be a student-led effort.

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