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ND bill would take aim at 'safe spaces' in higher ed

Rep. Rick Becker R-Bismarck, listens to testimony in the House Transportation Committee on Friday. (Will Kincaid, Bismarck Tribune)

BISMARCK — A bill set for debate by House legislators Tuesday, Jan. 24, could reject the concept of "safe spaces" in North Dakota higher education by bolstering protections for speech and expression.

Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, sponsor of House Bill 1329, said the proposed chapter is responding primarily to conversations about free speech in higher education occurring beyond the North Dakota University System.

"The motivation is recognizing what's happening on college campuses across the nation," Becker said. "For whatever reason, college students, administrators, or faculty believe it's appropriate to have areas where free speech is restricted on the campuses and call those areas 'safe spaces.' This is a bill that would say, in North Dakota, we don't do that."

As written, the bill would require the North Dakota Board of Higher Education to adopt a policy on free speech to apply to all NDUS students.

That policy would "confirm free speech is a fundamental right" and commit each of the state-funded higher education centers to "free and open inquiry by students in all matters."

Further, the policy would prohibit NDUS institutions from restricting speech or expression except in instances that involve violations of law, such as defamation or harassment, or in situations that involve "an action that directly conflicts with the function of an institution."

The bill would also require the SBHE to include a "bill of student rights" within the free speech policy. That document would recognize the right to freedom of inquiry, thought and expression on NDUS campuses while encouraging students to seek knowledge and speak out to the extent that speech does not interfere with academic classes. It would also assure students of their ability to issue dissent by holding that a student "may not be subject to any nonacademic punishment, discipline or censorship" by an NDUS entity for an act of lawful expression.

If students should feel the SBHE or individual NDUS school is in violation of the provisions of the proposed chapter, they would be able to file a complaint or petition for a court injunction within the proper jurisdiction.

Becker said he didn't think restrictions on campus speech were a problem in the NDUS at present, though he added "things are moving a little in that direction."

He declined to provide examples of that trend but characterized the bill as a preemptive measure intended to clarify policy.

"Students coming from institutions in the North Dakota system understand that we value free speech," Becker said. "This is not a place where they can be protected from things that make them uncomfortable with speech and ideas."

State Board Chairwoman Kathleen Neset was not available for comment on the bill. NDUS media representative Billie Jo Lorius said the system was committed to free speech but had little further comment. Lorius said system staff will be monitoring the bill and providing legislators with any information as is necessary.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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