Education

The Corner

William Ligon’s Georgia Campus Free Speech Act

Georgia State Senator William Ligon has filed SB 339, a campus free-speech bill based on the template published by Arizona’s Goldwater Institute. (I co-authored that model along with Jim Manley and Jonathan Butcher.) The Goldwater proposal, already the most comprehensive legislative prototype, was recently updated to include provisions on speaker security fees and free-association rights for student organizations. So the Georgia bill is on track to become one of the most far-reaching campus free-speech laws in the nation. (An updated white paper explaining all provisions of the expanded Goldwater model can be found here.)

On filing SB 339, Sen. Ligon warned that today’s college campuses were becoming “politically correct speech zones,” and noted that last year two Georgia state universities had earned a rebuke from FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) for unconstitutional restrictions of student speech. Ligon added, “The Georgia Legislature needs to ensure that our public colleges and universities protect the rights of all students and speakers to peacefully express their viewpoints without fear of being shouted down by protesters or reprimanded for what the administration deems as politically incorrect speech.”

I’ve known Sen. Ligon for some time now and consider him one of the most thoughtful and effective state legislators in the country. This bill will benefit from his sponsorship, and from the support of the strong group of co-sponsors he has gathered, including Education Committee Chair Lindsey Tippens.

With several model campus free-speech bills in circulation, the Goldwater proposal is the only one to systematically deal with speaker shout-downs, the heart and soul of the campus free-speech crisis. The Goldwater model also features an oversight system with teeth. Whereas some bills call on administrators to report on their own performance, Goldwater-based bills charge state university boards of trustees with the task of monitoring the administrative handling of free speech. With the governing body that stands above them running oversight, administrators will have to think twice before creating restrictive speech codes or allowing anti-free-speech demonstrators to shout-down visiting speakers. And a bad oversight report just might prompt legislators to reduce a university’s yearly appropriation. Bills that direct administrators to report on their own performance will not be as effective as Goldwater-based bills.

The Goldwater model’s strongest provision is the requirement that students who shout-down or silence the speech of others a second time must be punished with at least a suspension. Wisconsin has adopted a discipline policy based on this model, and the results so far have been encouraging.

Second Amendment advocate Katie Pavlich spoke without incident at the University of Wisconsin, Madison shortly after the university regents adopted a two- and three-strikes discipline policy. The leader of the anti-Pavlich demonstrators acknowledged that they had decided on peaceful tactics instead of trying to shut Pavlich down, because of the new discipline policy.

Some critics say that every case should be decided “on its own merit.” But a second offense is always more serious than the same act would have been as a first offense. If a convicted thief steals a second time, he obviously hasn’t learned that stealing is wrong. A thief ought to be punished more severely for a second offence, even if what he stole was not of great value. The fact that it’s a second offense is central to the merits of the case.

Yale’s 1974 Woodward Report, the classic statement on campus free-speech, called for suspension after only a single shout-down. The Goldwater proposal is mild by comparison. And crucially, in the matter of speaker shout-downs, the requirement for serious discipline on a second offense prevents administrators from continually punishing speech suppression with meaningless slaps on the wrist.

We know that Middlebury issued bogus “punishments” to the protesters who shouted down Charles Murray, one of the worst incidents of campus speech suppression last year. Just the other day, one of those protesters not only denied that they had done anything wrong, but denied that they had violated anyone’s rights at all: “We didn’t actually prevent [Murray] from speaking…He still wrote plenty of articles before and after the talk. It was just saying in this specific time on this specific stage, we’re sending you a message that we do not support your ideals.” So the fact that people can speak freely outside your campus gives you the right to silence them at your school?

The Middlebury shouters did far more than “send a message”. They silenced Murray and violated the right to listen of those who came to hear him. These students are in deep denial about what they’ve done, and a big reason for that is that Middlebury has effectively let them off without discipline.

William Ligon’s Georgia Campus Free Speech Act will prevent that from happening at Georgia’s public universities. On top of that, the Georgia Campus Free Speech Act will ban speech codes and so-called free-speech zones; discourage speaker disinvitations; allow persons whose free-speech rights have been violated by the university to sue; and in numerous other ways will safeguard freedom of speech in Georgia’s state university system.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He can be reached at comments.kurtz@nationalreview.com

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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