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Port: Why are North Dakota's campuses afraid of free speech protections?

The universities don't want the Legislature foisting speech protections on them just as they groused when the Legislature put in place due process protections for students accused of serious misconduct in campus tribunals that, frankly, operate like kangaroo courts.

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Barry Jennings, a 2018 graduate of North Dakota State University, protests the handling of hate speech incidents involving NDSU students Saturday, Dec. 5, in front of Ceres Hall. It was the second day of protests on the campus. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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MINOT, N.D. — House Bill 1503 , introduced by Rep. Ben Koppelman , R-West Fargo, would "prohibit activity fee funding discrimination based on a student organization’s viewpoint and allow speakers on campus regardless of their views."

Those seem like good things, right? Our campuses should be places where arguments and viewpoints, even those that are unpopular or controversial, should be expressed.

If not there, then where?

The protections aren't just for students, either. The bill states, "no faculty member will face adverse employment action for classroom speech, unless the speech is not reasonably germane to the subject matter of the class as broadly construed and comprises a substantial portion of classroom instruction."

So why, then, are North Dakota's higher education officials adopting an indignant, how-dare-you tone in opposing the legislation?

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“Despite the fact that our campuses have not encountered any substantiated cases of restrictions being placed on free speech, have had no speakers shouted down, no visitors assaulted, no ‘disinvited’ speakers, and no student complaints for at least the last 12 years, which is remarkable in the current political environment, there are still external forces that continue to perpetuate the notion that North Dakota colleges and universities are actively working against free speech and freedom of expression," griped Lisa Johnson , the North Dakota University System's vice chancellor for academic and student affairs. "While that may be true of certain coastal institutions, this is simply not true of NDUS institutions."

Johnson makes it sound like the NDUS is under attack by legislation that merely requires that the system's institutions not discriminate against controversial speech from students, student groups, campus speakers, or faculty.

I agree with Johnson that this, for the most part, hasn't been a problem on North Dakota's campuses. There have been incidents, including a UND professor threatening to call 911 over an on-campus ROTC drill using dummy rifles . Isolated incidents aside, North Dakota's campuses aren't nearly so close-minded as their counterparts in other parts of the country.

Still, why do we need to wait for speech restrictions to be a problem before we put in place protections?

Why the hostile reaction from the state's campuses if "most of these changes already have been made, or are in the process of being made, in the system’s policy," as Sydney Mook reports citing university officials ?

I suspect the answer is rank territorialism and institutional arrogance.

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The universities don't want the Legislature foisting speech protections on them just as they groused when the Legislature put in place due process protections for students accused of serious misconduct in campus tribunals that, frankly, operate like kangaroo courts.

It's an ugly but true fact of life that many in higher education value protecting their little fiefdoms' bureaucratic integrity more than protecting students and their rights.

Be that as it may, these institutions are public, and the public has an interest in ensuring free speech on campus for everyone.

Higher education officials who don't like that sort of accountability to the public should find a different line of work.

HB 1503 passed in the House in February on a 65-29 vote.

It currently awaits a recommendation from the Senate's Education Committee.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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