Georgia's Campus Free Speech Bill Protects Some Students' Rights, May Threaten Others
State senator proposes mandatory minimums for repeat First Amendment violators.
Eariler this week, Georgia State Sen. William Ligon, a Republican, introduced the Campus Free Speech Act, a bill designed to uphold students' First Amendment freedoms. Following a year in which there were plenty of campus speech meltdowns, this bill attempts to address the growing resistance to a free and open campus, though it also creates new concerns.
The bill, which is based on the Goldwater Model, would require universities to take action against students who shut down speakers. Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and co-author of the Goldwater proposal upon which this bill was based, feels strongly about this specific bill.
"The Georgia bill and the Goldwater model that inspired it aims to secure campus free-speech in the most balanced and comprehensive way possible," said Kurtz in an email to Reason. "It's often forgotten that the principle of institutional neutrality is a pillar of campus free-speech. Universities should resist the temptation to take official institutional stands on political controversies… the Goldwater proposal is the only model to affirm this principle of institutional neutrality."
In addition to requiring universities to create a policy on free speech, wherein universities must "strive to ensure the fullest degree of intellectual freedom and free expression," they must also agree that "it is not the proper role of the institution to shield individuals from speech" and that their protection must also extend to speech which some may "find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive."
The bill protects public demonstrations, provided that they do not "materially and substantially" infringe upon the rights of others. Campuses must be open to any speaker who is invited by student groups or faculty members, and these speakers must be given the same terms. Universities also may not charge a security fee based on the content of the invitee's speech (something Berkeley tried in the past).
Students who break these policies are entitled to certain due process rights that are spelled out in the document, but the bill states that "any student who has twice been found responsible for infringing upon the expressive rights of others shall be suspended for a minimum of one year or expelled."
Joe Cohn, the Legislative and Policy Director at Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said FIRE is troubled by this aspect of the proposal.
"We are always concerned about mandatory punishments that do not take into account individual culpability," said Cohn in an interview with Reason. "There is a difference between someone who has gotten in trouble for counter protesting as a freshman and then again as a senior, three credits shy of graduating, and someone who gave a professor a concussion at a rally."
This bill comes after a series of incidents involving Georgia state schools. In 2017, the University of North Georgia's former Student Code of Conduct was given FIRE's harshest rating—red—for substantially burdening free speech.
"We are glad speech speech codes are being addressed, and we will be watching and engaging in the process as this bill moves through legislation," Cohn says.