Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed the Campus Free Expression Act (CAFE Act) into law on Tuesday, making Missouri the second state to prohibit public universities from limiting student speech to a designated “free speech zone.”
Senate Bill 93, which was created to “protect free expression on the campuses of public institutions of higher education,” designates that all outdoor areas of the campuses of public universities will be recognized as “traditional public forums.”
The CAFE Act states that any individual may freely engage in “noncommercial expressive activity” as long as the individual’s conduct is “not unlawful and does not materially and substantially disrupt the institution’s functioning.”
The act, which was sponsored by Republican state Sen. Ed Emery, also notes that universities “may maintain and enforce reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions in service of a significant institutional interest” at times when such restrictions “employ clear, published, content and viewpoint-neutral criteria, and provide for ample alternative means of expression.”
“This act may be enforced in a court of competent jurisdiction by the attorney general or any person whose expressive rights were violated under this act,” Emery wrote. “A person may recover compensatory damages, reasonable court costs, and attorney fees.”
If a court finds an institution in violation of the new law, the CAFE Act states that it must award no less than $500 for the initial violation, and $50 for each day the violation continues.
Joe Cohn, the Legislative and Policy Director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said that while “one in six public colleges in the United States use free speech zones to restrict student speech,” the CAFE Act lets Missouri “statutorily ensure that its public colleges and universities will no longer be among them.”
FIRE noted that the CAFE Act received “overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate,” and was passed by a unanimous 34-0 vote before being passed in the House of Representatives.
Virginia became the first state to ban “free speech zones” on college campuses, when it enacted House Bill 258 in April 2014, which prohibits public universities from “imposing restrictions on the time, place, and manner of student speech that occurs in the outdoor areas of the institution’s campus and is protected by the First Amendment.”
“The fact of the matter remains that universities have a track record at silencing free speech, especially in cases that they disagree with,” said Republican state Rep. Rick Brattin, who handled the bill in the House.
Brattin told the Missouri Times that the CAFE Act became necessary when lawmakers discovered that the West Plains campus of Missouri State University designated a basketball court near the student rec center as its only free speech zone.
“Free speech is not a right or left issue,” Brattin said. “It’s an individual liberty and freedom we all hold dear to our heart. It’s sad that it comes to this point that we have to pass legislation to uphold these First Amendment rights.”