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Education

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.

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