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Governor signs bills defending campus free speech in Montana

April 15, 2021 GMT

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed Thursday two bills that supporters say aim to protect freedom of expression and association on public university campuses in the state.

The new law prohibits universities from denying resources to religious, political or ideological student organizations even if they hold views that other students find offensive. Universities can still prohibit discrimination targeting particular students.

That bill passed the Legislature largely along party lines, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed. Supporters of the measure say it is needed to avoid exclusion of groups that hold controversial views. Opponents say the measure would allow groups to receive university funding even if they uphold views that exclude or target certain students, such as members of the LGBTQ community.

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The new law would also ban universities from limiting controversial speech to “free speech zones” – designated areas on campus that students and others are restricted to if they want to share views without getting approval from college officials for events that can be political in nature. Montana university officials said earlier this year that there are no free speech zones on their campuses.

Under the law, organization members who say their free speech is being curtailed by the university can sue for damages between $2,000 and $75,000.

That bill, which passed the Legislature with broad bipartisan support, is similar to a measure that passed in 2019, only to be vetoed by then Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, who said free speech is already protected by the Constitution.

Gianforte, a Republican who succeeded Bullock earlier this year, said in a statement after signing the bill that a university “should be a place where the free exchange of ideas is encouraged.”

Rep Mike Hopkins, a Republican, brought both bills after he and others accused the University of Montana of failing to equitably protect the right of controversial sociologist Mike Adams to appear on campus in 2018. Adams delivered a widely attended speech called “the Death of Liberal Bias in Higher Education” but the dean of the college’s School of Journalism declined to sponsor it.

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Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.