Friday, May 18, 2018

Georgia Passes limited Campus Free-Speech Law

By Stanley Kurtz

On May 8, Georgia governor Nathan Deal signed into law a bill (SB 339) providing important protections for campus free speech at public universities in his state. The bill, skillfully moved through the legislature by its sponsor, Senator William Ligon, is based on model campus free-speech legislation published by Arizona’s Goldwater Institute. (I co-authored that model, along with Jim Manley and Jonathan Butcher.)

On the one hand, Georgia’s Campus Free Speech Act is a very important step forward. On the other hand, Georgia’s public universities worked overtime to remove some critical protections from the bill. That means we’re likely to see another round of legislative jousting over campus free speech in Georgia next year.

Let’s first count up the positives.

Georgia’s new campus free speech law discourages speaker disinvitations by guaranteeing that public universities are open to any speaker whom a student group or members of the faculty have invited. The law also instructs the Board of Regents to establish a range of sanctions for speaker shout-downs. The new law then sets up an annual oversight system under control of the Board of Regents (and therefore independent of the university administration) to ensure that administrative discipline for shout-downs, and for other violations of free expression, is properly carried out. The new law also instructs the Board of Regents to assess administrative successes or failures at maintaining a posture of institutional neutrality on matters of public controversy. The Regents are also instructed to suggest remedies for any failings on this point.

The annual oversight report on the administrative handling of free speech, discipline for shout-downs, and institutional neutrality, is to be submitted to the governor, the legislature, and the public. A bad report would give legislators reason to reconsider the universities’ annual appropriation. A report that whitewashed genuine problems would subject the Board of Regents and those responsible for appointing them to public criticism.

Despite these important advances, Georgia’s public universities managed to strip SB 339 of provisions that would have decisively banned so-called free-speech zones. Georgia’s public universities have a disturbing history of suppressing speech by restricting it to tiny “zones.” It is shameful that Georgia would pass a campus free-speech law that fails to definitively outlaw these zones.

This is especially so since Attorney General Sessions made news last fall by singling out the use of free-speech zones to prevent an Evangelical Christian student at Georgia Gwinnett from speaking to fellow students about his faith. The Justice Department has filed a “statement of interest” in that case. And I’ve written about the particular hostility shown by administrators at Georgia’s public colleges toward Christian speech.

SB 339 does contain some limited provisions that may make it more difficult for universities to construct such zones, but that outcome is highly ambiguous and far from assured. There is no doubt that Georgia still needs to act decisively to outlaw campus free-speech zones.



Bird of Paradise said...

Time to take those Campus pinheads who restrict Freedom of Speech to court and sue them for the clothes they wear

Bill R. said...

Why do we need ANY new laws covering free speech? The First Amendment is all that's needed and it's been around since 1787.