BOISE — Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, presented the Protecting Critical Thinking in Higher Education Act to the House Education Committee on Wednesday morning. The bill is intended to protect the right of college students to express their views on campus. The committee voted 12-3 along party lines to send the HB 364 to the House floor with a do pass recommendation.
Under the bill, anyone “who wishes to engage in noncommercial expressive activity on campus must be permitted to do so freely, as long as the person's conduct is not unlawful and does not materially and substantially disrupt the functioning of the public institution of higher education.”
A person or student group on campus “aggrieved by a violation of this chapter may bring an action against the public institution.” If a court decides that the school did violate the proposed law, the court could order the school to pay up to $5,000 to the student.
Universities will be required to write a report on how they plan to comply with this law if it passes.
HB 364 may be the key to getting the higher ed budget passed, Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, told the Idaho Press on Monday. Amador sponsored the previous higher ed budget bill and has been part of a JFAC working group that’s been creating the latest version of it. The first version was defeated last week in the House 57-13 after representatives said they did not want to fund institutions that did not share their conservative views.
"This body tried to send a message last year by taking three tries at the budget. The hope was that higher education would get the message and show positive action towards having a higher education system that better matched the values in Idaho. Unfortunately, it seems to have doubled down on its social justice mission and critical race theory," said Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, during the April 7 debate.
Amador saw a policy change bill as a better way forward for those who had issues with the universities.
“I don’t know that a budget punishment is the best way to make changes on our college and university campuses,” he told the Idaho Press. “It’s ultimately going to have to come from the State Board of Education.”
The hearing for HB 364 was scheduled Tuesday after the House killed the public school budget following concerns that Idaho's K-12 schools may promote social justice and critical race theory as well.
“We have been surrounded within, not just our Legislative body, but a huge state discussion on basically the ability to protect our free speech,” Ehardt told the committee.
Ehardt believes students are being punished or silenced for their views. She hopes the bill “helps to change the culture in the classroom.”
“Everyone should have the ability … to participate in the discussion and freely express those views that may also be counter to those that the professor or even the majority of the classroom,” Ehardt said of her bill.
She referenced a Florida State University Student Senate president who criticized the Black Lives Matter movement last year because he said it “fosters ‘a queer affirming network’ and defends transgenderism.” The student, Jack Denton, made the comments within a group chat for Catholic Student Union members at FSU, fsunews.com reported. His fellow Student Senate members voted to strip his presidency. The school’s Student Supreme Court later ruled Denton's removal unconstitutional, and he was reinstated.
Ehardt said the Florida case was "very similar" to an event at Boise State University. Ehardt later confirmed to the Post Register that she had been referring to the November 2020 impeachment of Angel Cantu, president of the Associated Students of Boise State University. Cantu was charged with, among other things, trying to "stop the activist movement against the resigning or extension" of Boise Police Department's contract with Boise State University, according to a document from the association.
“Universities have gotten used to creating their own code language, their own speech zones, their own way of dealing with how a person feels, and if you’re offended, if somebody gets offended, you’re no longer able to speak,” Ehardt said.
Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, expressed disappointment that Ehardt had not asked for assistance on the bill, since he had his own version “ready to go.” In 2018, McCrostie teamed up with Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, to write a similar bill, HB 622. It passed with just one nay vote in the House but got stuck in the Senate Education Committee.
“The needs that exist on campus affect students of all stripes and colors and characteristics. I thought it was an important issue to address,” McCrostie told the Post Register afterward.
However, McCrostie, Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, Sally Toone, D-Gooding, voted to hold the bill, as did Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls initially. All felt the bill process had been too rushed and many members of the committee had not been given an opportunity to review the bill beforehand. Clow then changed his vote on the second motion to send it to the House.