The Corner


Georgia Passes Goldwater-Based Campus Free-Speech Law

University of Georgia’s campus (Via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Georgia’s public universities also managed to strip SB 339 of important provisions protecting the expressive and free-association rights of student groups. A provision preventing the abuse of security fees as a backdoor tactic of censorship has also been removed, as have safeguards for the due-process rights of students accused of silencing others. All of these issues will likely be revisited by the legislature in 2019.

The key to ensuring fuller protection for free expression on Georgia’s public campuses may be the upcoming gubernatorial election. If Georgia’s new governor is strongly committed to securing campus free speech, it is likely that the law just passed will be significantly strengthened in the next legislative session.

I hope the candidates in Georgia’s governor’s race will now address this issue, particularly the need to ban so-called free-speech zones on the campuses of Georgia’s public universities. The shameful use of bogus “free speech zones” to suppress speech on Georgia’s public campuses must end. The citizens of Georgia would be well advised to demand that any candidate for governor speak to this issue.

That said, hearty congratulations are in order to Senator Ligon and the Georgia legislature for this major step forward on campus free speech.  With provisions discouraging speaker disinvitations, ensuring discipline for speaker shout-downs, safeguarding institutional neutrality, and establishing an independent oversight system, SB 339 is a major advance in the national battle to restore campus free speech.

By law or by policy, four states are now covered by some version of the Goldwater model campus free-speech bill, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia.

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

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

The Media See Only One Collusion Story

President Trump is opening a whole new chapter in the war between him and the investigators pursuing him. Today, he tweeted: “I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political ... Read More

In Appreciation, and against (Too Much) Nostalgia

To put it a little self-pityingly: It seems that my gurus are going, and the world’s. Richard Pipes, the great historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, died on Thursday; Bernard Lewis, the great historian of the Middle East, died yesterday. We had them both for a long time. Pipes was born in 1923, Lewis way ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Keeping Catholic Foster Care in Philly

Last week, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a complaint in a Pennsylvania district court on behalf of foster parents working with Catholic Social Services at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Despite issuing a recent plea for more people to step up as candidates for foster parents, the city of ... Read More

Comedians Are Catching On

The comedians are beginning to catch on. Over the weekend -- just one week after featuring a bevy of top-line Hollywood stars impersonating members of the Trump administration, as well as a cameo by a vengeful Stormy Daniels asking for President Trump’s resignation -- Saturday Night Live finally acknowledged ... Read More
PC Culture

The Nature of Progressive Insensitivity

Former vice president Joe Biden is back in the news yet again. For a second time, he seems surprised that poor residents of the inner city are capable of doing sophisticated jobs: We don't think ordinary people can do things like program, code. It's not rocket science, guys. So, we went and we hired some folks ... Read More

The Feminization of Everything Fails Our Boys

Let me share with you two troubling — and, I believe, closely linked — news reports. The first, from this weekend, comes courtesy of the American Enterprise Institute’s Mark Perry. In one chart, he highlights the dramatic and growing gender gap in higher education. In short, women are dominating: ... Read More