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Arkansas Committee Does Not Advance Bill Concerning Free Speech On College Campuses

Arkansas Senate

A bill that would have widened an existing law regarding free speech on college campuses in Arkansas stalled Monday due to a lack of action. 

Senate Bill 191, which would have created the “Free Thought In Higher Education Act,” failed to advance the Arkansas Senate Education Committee when no member seconded a motion to pass the bill.

Bill sponsor, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, called SB191 the next step of the current “Forming Open and Robust University Minds” or FORUM Act that the legislature passed in 2019. That law eliminated "free speech zones" on college campuses and instead declared all accessible outdoor areas on a campus to be a public forum.

"The first bill that we passed, the FORUM bill, now demonstrates that the colleges can handle that. The faculties and staff could handle it. Reasonable seems to have been worked out what’s reasonable, and this bill is just another step forward," Sullivan said.

He said he was unaware of any problems created by the initial FORUM Act. 

"When the first Forum Act passed two years ago, one would think that if it were a problem determining what reasonable was, part of that 'Where is that bridge too far,' it wouldn’t appear to have happened on the first Forum Act two years ago, nor any time between then," Sullivan said.

Democratic Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock raised a concern on Sullivan’s decision to further expand the existing law.

"I’m not following that 'Because no bad things have happened because of our first bill, that we can then extrapolate from that [that] no bad things are going to happen if we just go keep on further," Elliott said.

One change the bill would have made is widening where freedom of speech would be allowed from "outdoor areas of campus" to also including "indoor areas that are generally accessible to members of the campus community."

Brad Phelps, general council for the Arkansas State University System, spoke against the bill, and expressed concern on the proposed expanded definition of what can be considered a public forum, saying classrooms and hallways could be included.

The bill would have only applied to institutions of higher education.  

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