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Opinion: Bullock won't be president, but he could champion free speech

Jacob Lane
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock takes the stage before the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Tuesday.

Earlier this summer, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed HB 735, a measure which included free speech protections for students at Montana’s public colleges and universities. The bill would have prevented state-funded institutions from enforcing “free speech zones,” which presently allow colleges and universities in the state to confine protests and other expressive activities in designated areas of campuses that are open to the public. 

Republican state Rep. David Bedey, a co-sponsor of the bill, cited the constant attack on intellectual diversity as part of the reason why he brought the bill forward. As Bedey told Campus Reform, “Montanans must ensure that this erosion of our First Amendment rights does not occur in our state’s colleges.”

In announcing his veto, Gov. Bullock claimed “recent headlines” as the primary reason state legislators were so keen to pass HB 735. He further mentioned that he had been in contact with university presidents across the state, and was “assured that their policies are entirely consistent with — and, indeed, promote  constitutional values of free speech and free assembly.”

If that is indeed the case, why not add an extra measure of protection to the state’s existing statues?

As someone who works in education, hardly a day goes by that I do not hear about a student on a college or university campus being censored for the values they hold.

In this past year alone, a student at Montana State University was banned from campus after expressing their view on transgender students with a professor in private, and the university excluded conservative speaker Mike Adams from giving a lecture on campus because he was considered “extreme” in his opinions by college administrators.

With these blatant examples of hostility towards free speech, can one really trust university presidents to promote the open expression of ideas without some sort of legislation forcing their hands? Surely not.

I call on Gov. Bullock to reconsider his veto and support HB 735.

Eliminating free speech zones on campuses in Montana would benefit all members of campus communities. State colleges and universities would no longer be subjected to lawsuits based on the existence of these outdated campus mainstays, while students would no longer risk punishment for expressing the rights given to them in the First Amendment or fear speaking out.

Gov. Bullock is term-limited and cannot seek re-election in 2020 for another term as governor. What better way to cap his tenure as governor than by protecting the free expression of ideas on college campuses in his state?

Of course, there’s no assurance that this legislation will work as intended in the end.  There's no guarantee more laws at the state level will be the panacea needed to preserve the First Amendment on college campuses. But the potential benefits of this legislation outweigh the risks.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock speaks during the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates Tuesday in Detroit.

Bullock is going nowhere in his quest for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president. He only qualified for the second round of debates, and few people outside of the state know who he is. 

But before his final term ends, he has the power to become a champion of the First Amendment on college campuses by signing HB 735. That’s something that will have much more of a lasting impact than any campaign speech or bumper sticker.

Jacob Lane worked for both the Indiana House Republican Caucus and the Indiana Republican State Committee. He received his master’s in journalism from Ball State University.