California bill would end 'free speech zones' on college campuses

The LA Times has an interesting story which sounds a bit like the set up for a joke. A 26-year-old vegan Democrat and a 72-year-old Republican cattle rancher are working together to put an end to “free speech zones” on college campuses in California.

The unlikely duo found common cause in pushing back against what they see as a climate of restricted free speech on college campuses. Two years ago, [Nicolas] Tomas sued Cal Poly Pomona for preventing him from distributing pro-vegan leaflets outside of the “free speech zone”— a 144-square-foot area designated for such activities. Now, [state Sen. Jim] Nielsen is carrying a bill to dismantle the use of these zones on public campuses…

The legislation would effectively put an end to the practice of free speech zones. UC and the chancellor of California Community Colleges haven’t taken positions on the measure; CSU is working with Nielsen on wording tweaks.

The bill, SB 472, sailed through two policy committees with unanimous support. But a possible hitch looms: UC has estimated that enforcing the measure could add millions of dollars of costs for administrative, security and legal fees.

Thanks to the UC cost estimate, the bill could be killed even without anyone voting against it. But Joe Cohn of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that defends free speech, says the whole premise of the UC cost estimate is laughable. Cohn tells the LA Times, “They already have this same liability and same legal obligation, regardless or not if the bill passes.”

The idea that the UC system is concerned about costs is somewhat ironic for another reason. Recall that a state audit released last month found that the UC Office of the President had created a $175 million slush fund by claiming it needed more money for programs and then spending less than estimated. The office was also paying unusually high salaries and reimbursing employees for questionable travel expenses. UC President Janet Napolitano claimed the stash of money was a reserve fund. If so, maybe they can put some of that money toward respecting the right to free speech.

Tomas, the vegan Democrat who has been meeting with lawmakers about the bill tells the Times, “I find it really great to team up with the cattle rancher. It really symbolizes the issue. Free speech at its finest is two people disagreeing with each other and saying, ‘Let’s discuss it.’”

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