A bill that would add campus free speech rights to North Dakota law passed the state Senate after a lengthy floor debate on Thursday, April 1.
Among a litany of changes, House Bill 1503 would prohibit activity fee funding discrimination based on a student organization’s viewpoint and allow speakers on campus regardless of their views. Additionally, it would eliminate free-speech zones on college campuses, though no campuses in the North Dakota University System have free-speech zones.
Despite receiving a do not pass recommendation in committee, the bill passed by a 35-12 vote and now heads to the desk of Gov. Doug Burgum for his consideration.
The legislation has had considerable pushback from the North Dakota University System, as system leaders feel the legislation is unnecessary because most of these changes already have been made, or are in the process of being made, in the system’s policy.
Additionally, they noted that putting these changes into law would make it more difficult for changes to be made in the future if they need to be updated due to federal law changes. That could leave campuses, or the system overall, vulnerable to a lawsuit.
The system has not had any formal free speech or freedom of religion complaints in the last 12 years.
Lawmakers debated the bill on the Senate floor for nearly half an hour Thursday, with legislators in favor of the bill arguing that free speech protections should be strengthened by adding them to state law.
“This bill is not about dealing with problems of free speech that have happened, this is about preventing the problem of free speech from becoming a problem,” Sen. Michael Wobbema, R-Valley City. “The fact that it may or may not have happened is only a function of those who have had to deal with it not reporting it.”
Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, argued that the university system was already working on ways to address flaws in its free speech policies, and the bill came late in the session and without consultation from the North Dakota University System.
“The university system … didn’t claim that their policy was perfect,” she said, adding that the system was doing so by taking input from many different avenues, including out-of-state organizations that were involved in drafting the bill.
She added that the policy changes the system is in the process of making are more encompassing than the bill.