Melissa Melendez’s California Campus Free Speech Act

by Stanley Kurtz

California Assemblywoman Melissa A. Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) has just introduced the California Campus Free Speech Act. Melendez’s bill is based on the model campus free speech legislation I co-authored with Jim Manley and Jonathan Butcher of Arizona’s Goldwater Institute.

Upon introducing her legislation, Melendez released a statement that said: “Liberty cannot live without the freedom to speak and nowhere is that more important than on college campuses where we educate the leaders of tomorrow. The institutional silencing of individuals because of differing political ideology threatens the very foundation upon which our country was built.”

Although the California Campus Free Speech Act is closely based on the Goldwater proposal, it has a couple of strikingly distinctive features. While the Goldwater proposal and the bills based on it to date apply only to public universities, the California Campus Free Speech Act applies to both public and private colleges. That means this new legislation would apply not only to the University of California at Berkeley, where the Yiannopoulos and Coulter fiascos played out, but also to Claremont McKenna College, where Heather MacDonald’s talk was cut short.

The California Campus Free Speech Act accomplishes this by conditioning some (but not all) state aid to private colleges and universities on compliance with the Act (and by including an exemption for private religious colleges). In this, the legislation is clearly inspired by California’s Leonard Law, the only law in the country that extends First Amendment protections to private as well as public high schools and colleges.

The California Campus Free Speech Act is also framed as an amendment to California’s state constitution, which means that it can pass only with a two-thirds majority vote, and would then have to be ratified or rejected by a majority of state voters. A two-thirds majority requirement for a campus free speech bill is a high bar in a legislature dominated by Democrats. That said, I don’t think it will be easy for legislators of any party to openly oppose this bill.

There is also another route this proposed amendment could take. It’s relatively easy to place amendments to the California state constitution on the ballot. In lieu of a two-thirds majority in the legislature, signatures from the equivalent of 8% of the votes cast for all candidates in the last gubernatorial race suffice to place an amendment on the ballot. At that point, it requires only a simple majority vote for the measure to become part of California’s state constitution.

I wonder if some enterprising folks in California might decide to organize and finance an initiative campaign to place Melissa Melendez’s campus free-speech measure on the 2018 ballot. Once it got there, I believe it would have a very real prospect of passage. After the embarrassments of the last academic year, 50% plus one of California’s voters would likely act to restore freedom of speech to their state’s college campuses.

Momentum for state-level campus free speech bills based on the Goldwater model is clearly building. Late last week, Goldwater-inspired bills were introduced in Michigan and Wisconsin. With California now in the mix, the debate over the Goldwater proposal is becoming truly national. I much look forward to the battle over Melissa Melendez’s California Campus Free Speech Act. California has been ground zero for the campus free-speech crisis. Maybe now California can contribute to the solution.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He can be reached at [email protected]

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