Sponsor withdraws bill that would expand free expression protections on Arkansas’ college campuses

Senator Dan Sullivan on Wednesday withdrew his bill clarifying protections of free speech on college campuses because of bipartisan opposition in the Senate Education Committee.

Sullivan, a Republican from Jonesboro, said the bill aims to extend campus First Amendment protections to public college classrooms. The bill amends the state’s Forming Open and Robust University Mind, or FORUM Act, a 2019 law clarifying protections of free speech on college campuses. Sullivan said the bill should allow “what’s legal outside, what’s legal inside.”

“So we’re spending a lot of money on higher education and it’s only right that we have the same freedoms outside as we have inside with added protection,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan, in whose Senate district the Arkansas State University campus in Jonesboro is located, decided to withdraw his bill before the committee could vote on it, fearing it was likely to fail. Sullivan claimed the bill would only allow brief and non-violent disruptions within campus buildings.

Committee members said they had concerns about whether the bill would allow disruption inside buildings on college campuses and criticized the bill, which calls for “minor, brief, or fleeting nonviolent disruption of events” but not in locations where this case is reserved for an event.

“My only concern is that it allows for short-lived and isolated interruptions,” said Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville.

[DOCUMENT: Read the Senate bill withdrawn by Sullivan »]

Part of Sullivan’s goal was to forestall any campus language code that would require faculty or students to address others with their preferred pronouns, and said colleges do not mandate “the use of specific words, including but not limited to pronouns.” language “can be found unwelcome, uncollegial, uncomfortable or even deeply offensive by individuals.”

Sullivan said his bill would protect the free speech of students who misgender their classmates, but also students who wanted to dress in women’s clothing.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said lawmakers wrote the FORUM Act to give more weight to protecting free speech outdoors and said protests in campus buildings could disrupt classes.

“What we did specifically was keep it outside so it wouldn’t interfere with classes that are being held indoors,” Chesterfield said.

The bill also states that the First Amendment is “the ground of protection of free speech” and states that colleges must allow lawful protests on any area of ​​campus that is generally open to the public. Some members of the committee questioned the bill’s conspicuous language, citing the “first amendment” of the FORUM Act. Sullivan said he was willing to amend the bill to address committee members’ concerns.

“The legislature can’t give you your First Amendment right — it can’t do that,” Sullivan said. “Crossing that out and saying different words just clarifies what your First Amendment right is.”

The FORUM Act, also known as Act 184, was passed in 2019 by Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed. The bill had bipartisan support to clarify protections for free speech on college campuses.

Sullivan, who was an Act 184 sponsor, was invited to a White House meeting in 2019 where then-President Donald Trump warned that colleges could lose federal funding if they fail to respect First Amendment student rights.

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