Monday, April 23, 2018

Campus free speech bill passes Senate Education. But does it expand students’ rights?

Tuesday was Florida State University Day at the Capitol, and shortly before the Seminole marching band began blaring their triumphant "War Chant" outside, the Senate Education committee was locked in heated debate over free speech on university campuses.

The committee eventually passed SB 1234, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, along party lines. It has one more committee in the Senate before it will hit the floor and its House version is on a similar track.

The bill has essentially two halves: one piece would expressly put schools on the hook for lawsuits, fines and attorneys fees if they violate certain free speech rules, including if protests are found to "materially disrupt" previously scheduled events.

"I don't like that. I have talked to some members of the legislature about that. I think it's going a little bit too far," said FSU President John Thrasher, a former Speaker of the Florida House, who was at the Capitol. "I don't think we need that and I think they're going to work on it."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Florida lawmakers want stronger college free speech rules amid First Amendment flareups 

Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Perry Thurston, Jr., of Lauderhill voiced concern during committee that this bill could take away the power of universities to have control over the events that take place on their campuses, and could discourage counter-protests like those that were staged at the University of Florida when white supremacist Richard Spencer spoke last fall. Thurston proposed several amendments, one of which would have ensured the right to peacefully counter-protest, that did not pass.

"It's always prefaced on the fact they cannot disrupt or disturb, it just reserves the right to protest," he said. "At the time of the Richard Spencer … there were protests of that event as well. So the faculty has the ability to allow people to disagree to actually express that they're disagreeing with the presenter."

He later called the bill "unnecessary."

A representative of the American Civil Liberties Union spoke against this portion of the bill, saying it would give universities financial incentives to chill student speech. However, it supported the other half of SB 1234: which would require public universities and colleges to dissolve designated "free speech zones," or areas they have set aside for student protests.

"This is to address a flourishing limitation of free speech, particularly across the country, many of our universities are restricting free speech to 'free speech zones,'" he said. "And there's something very antithetical to a free speech environment and saying you can have free speech but only in this little square."

A few Florida universities, such as the University of Central Florida and Florida State University, guide students to open areas well-suited for protests, but those institutions have emphasized that these zones are not restrictive.

Others, like the University of West Florida, for example, do have dedicated zones, where all non-scheduled gatherings must be held.

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