The California Assembly's higher education committee discusses SB 1287 on June 18, 2024. (Photo/Hannah Ross)
The California Assembly's higher education committee discusses SB 1287 on June 18, 2024. (Photo/Hannah Ross)

State bill meant to rein in college protests moves ahead but faces free speech questions

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Updated June 21

A state bill seeking to curb violent rhetoric on college campuses faces concerns about free speech restrictions, although it has passed several legislative hurdles so far.

Senate Bill 1287, known as the “Equity in Higher Education Act,” addresses the escalation and intensity of campus protests since the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre in Israel and the ongoing war. The bill requires California colleges and universities to prohibit “violent, harassing, intimidating, or discriminatory conduct that creates a hostile environment” based on “race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or disability status.” The original version of the bill also banned advocating for “genocide,” but the text was amended this week to exclude that specific word.

State Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), the bill’s author, said during testimony in Sacramento this week that the bill doesn’t impinge on rights of free speech and assembly while ensuring that protests take place with respect and civility.

“All student voices have the right to be heard. None should be silenced. I believe this legislation will help restore an environment for civil discourse on our campuses,” Glazer said.

Glazer is a member of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, which tapped SB 1287 as one of its top priorities of the legislative session.

Cynthia Valencia, a legislative advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union’s California affiliates, and a UCLA student spoke in opposition of the bill during Tuesday’s hearing of the Assembly’s higher education committee. 

Valencia stressed that SB 1287 would “call for punishment and chilling of speech in the name of civility,” violating students’ constitutional rights. She also cited existing law around student codes of conduct that supports safe learning environments.

Representatives from the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, whose San Francisco regional office’s head has delivered harsh rebukes of American Zionists, also opposed the bill.

SB 1287 passed the Senate on a 30-1 vote on May 22. The bill’s first stop in the Assembly was Tuesday at the higher education committee, which passed the bill on a 7-1 vote. It’s now in the Assembly’s judiciary committee. If it passes there, SB 1287 will go to a full vote of the Assembly.

Although SB 1287 largely reinforces preexisting law around campus codes of conduct, it goes a step further in requiring mandatory student training about codes of conduct and “how to engage respectfully” in protests, according to Glazer.

A Jewish Public Affairs Committee lobbyist and a UC Davis student spoke in support of the bill, both stressing the urgent need to address an increasingly hostile climate across California campuses..

Right now, the state’s public colleges and universities can only discipline students for free speech activity if it becomes unlawful or violates time, place, and manner restrictions. SB 1287 would create more specific boundaries and enforcement around such restrictions. 

Assemblymember Corey Jackson (D-Moreno Valley) supported the bill’s intent.

“I think we have to make sure that we realign ourselves in terms of what the core principles of protest is, which is get in the way, make things uncomfortable — not all things that are uncomfortable are a bad thing. But what we’ve been seeing and what I’ve been seeing … is that we have begun to lose our own humanity, as we claim that we’re fighting for others’ [humanity],” Jackson said, citing personal experience participating in nonviolent political action. “We’ve got to restore that expectation and reteach people how to protest.”

Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) voiced concern about the potential of the bill’s subjective language like “intimidating conduct” and “hostile environment” to be misinterpreted by schools tasked with enforcing it.

“I try to remind myself that I’m not in a court of law, that I’m in a political body at this time. But at the same time I’m really struggling,” Muratsuchi said. “I’m not doing this for any political performance. … I really do want to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community and all those that have expressed their concerns about not feeling safe on their college campuses, but I also absolutely take it seriously that I don’t want to chill free speech on our college campuses.”

Muratsuchi abstained from the vote. Assemblymember Bill Essayli (R- Corona), who voted against the bill, had similar concerns.

“I hate hate speech. I condemn it. It’s deplorable. But it’s protected.” Essayli said. He also raised concerns about what he viewed as the redundancy of the bill — noting that threatening people, burning police cars, holding people hostage, stalking and building tent encampments on public property are already illegal. 

Assemblymember Mike Fong (D-Monterey Park), who chairs the higher education committee, endorsed SB 1287 and said he “remains optimistic that this bill along with other bills being championed by the Jewish caucus will continue to protect students’ freedom of speech and to protect students from all forms of discrimination.”

Glazer said he was encouraged by the thoughtfulness of the debate as evidence of what the bill seeks to protect.

“Free speech is not only my speech. It’s the ability of everyone else to speak and participate, and that goes to the essence of what we would like to see and expect on our college campuses,” Glazer said. SB 1287 “engages students directly with this conversation so that we all understand how we can get along, work together, think together … argue together.”

Correction on June 21: Due to an editing error, the story incorrectly referenced an earlier version of the bill that included a prohibition on advocating for genocide. The latest version of the bill excludes that specific word. 

Hannah Ross

J. correspondent