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The University of Montana, Missoula.

Montana passes laws protecting free speech on campus

Montana has joined other speech-friendly states in passing its own laws abolishing speech codes and zones on public college campuses within its borders. HB 218 prohibits speech zones, requires school policies that affirm and encourage free speech, and requires accountability from the state’s public colleges and universities.

That accountability takes the form of regular reports to the governor and the public outlining the institution’s steps taken to comply with the law. It also allows students whose free speech rights have been violated to sue the educational institution for monetary damages.

A second bill passed by the Montana legislature, HB 349, prohibits discrimination against student clubs on the basis of their viewpoint. It includes the protection of a club’s right to require its leaders to adhere to the club’s sincerely held beliefs, a response to situations around the country involving a school’s attempt to force Christian clubs to accept leaderswho don’t adhere to the club’s statement of faith or code of conduct.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has represented numerous clubs and students in these types of cases around the country over the years. It issued a press release commending Montana for its new law.

“Public colleges and universities are meant to be free and open to the exchange of ideas—a place where our future teachers, lawyers, doctors, judges, community leaders, and voters can exercise their constitutionally protected freedom of speech,” ADF Senior Counsel Zack Pruitt said. “Together, these bills help ensure that public universities remain places where intellectual diversity flourishes and all students can engage in the exchange of ideas rather than being censored on campus. We commend the Montana Legislature and Gov. Gianforte for protecting students’ First Amendment freedoms.”

Jeff Laszloffy is the President of Montana Family Foundation (MFF), a Focus on the Family-affiliated organization. MFF promotes pro-family values in The Treasure State. The Daily Citizen spoke with Laszloffy to get his reaction to the two new free speech laws in his state.

“Well, obviously, we think it’s a great idea,” he said. “The muzzle has been removed, and students can once again speak freely about their beliefs and their political viewpoints.”

Laszloffy mentioned that the two recently enacted bills were prompted by an incident at the University of Montana where the student chapter of the Christian Legal Society was penalized and defunded for requiring its leadership to sign a statement of faith.

He also told us that the legislature has passed a state version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), known as SB 215, which prohibits government from substantially burdening the free exercise of religion unless it has a compelling government interest at stake. Even then the government must take care to accomplish its goal in a the least restrictive way available. A RFRA is a valuable tool to have at the state level in the protection of our precious religious freedom.

The Montana legislature also passed a Religion is Essential Act, as several other states have recently, to ensure that when public emergencies such as pandemics require the closing of businesses and other facilities, churches are treated fairly.

–Wire services