Arizona considering bill to ban 'free speech zones' on college campuses

College students in Arizona may soon be free to express their opinions anywhere on campus without prior permission if the State Legislature passes a bill banning free speech zones.

HB 2615, introduced Monday by State Rep. Anthony Kern, would prohibit all community colleges and universities in the state from designating any area of campus as a free speech zone, and would further require that any such zones that already exist “shall be converted to a monument or memorial.”

The new provisions would only apply to public institutions, and while they would supplement the speech protections already extended to public college students in Arizona, they would also cover non-students who might wish to engage in non-commercial expression on campus.

According to the Arizona Daily Sun, both Northern Arizona University and Coconino Community College are among the schools that would be affected by the legislation, because both maintain free speech zones and require individuals or groups to submit prior notice before the schools will approve any assembly.

Under current law, schools are not allowed to “restrict a student's right to speak, including verbal speech, holding a sign, or distributing fliers or other materials in a public forum,” but many have been able to circumvent that prohibition by exercising their ability to designate free speech zones as the only “public forums” on campus.

[RELATED: Free speech zones reluctantly enforced during Constitution Week]

Even when students attempt to comply with those regulations, though, administrators often come up with inventive ways to prevent them from speaking anyway.

At Arizona’s Paradise Valley Community College, for instance, administrators evicted freshman Brittany Mirelez from the school’s free speech zone because she had failed to notify them in advance that she would be using it. PVCC stood firm when Mirelez challenged the constitutionality of their policies, leading her to file suit against the school in December to compel them to recognize students’ First Amendment rights.

[RELATED: Student sues college for evicting her from free speech zone]

Kern’s legislation would also clarify existing protections for religious freedom, which he in fact describes as one of the bill’s primary purposes.

Kern told the Arizona Capitol Times that he was unaware of the altercation at PVCC or the ensuing lawsuit, and was instead inspired to propose the bill based on his own experiences attempting to hand out materials with a church group at Glendale Community College. For several years, he said, the group had assembled on campus during the annual Independence Day festivities, only to be informed one year that they would have to find an alternate location.

“All of a sudden, they came up with this free speech zone which was way away from the people,” Kern recounted. “It defeated the whole purpose.”

He did make clear, however, that his proposal would still leave schools with certain tools at their disposal to ensure that free expression does not interfere with the academic environment on campus.

Hence, the legislation would not apply to commercial speech such as setting up a booth to sell merchandise or services, and schools would still be able to impose restrictions in the interest of decorum, such as limiting the volume or allowable times for loudspeakers and using space reservations to prevent conflicts between groups.

Kern also specified that the legislation would not prevent the use of free speech zones in other contexts, such as during political events, explaining that “the reason why college campuses and universities are kind of singled out is because these have always been the bastions of free speech; the bastions of free debate.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @FrickePete