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

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Rising up in defiance to Richard Spencer, hundreds of University of Florida students sounded off in a deafening chant.

"Go home, Spencer!" they shouted, as the exasperated white nationalist paced the stage, pleading to be heard.

Were the students exercising their fellow First Amendment rights? Or were they breaking the law by taking his event off the rails?

That would be up for debate under a new "campus free expression" bill filed in Florida this week.

The part that may attract attention is the proposal that no student, faculty member or staffer can materially disrupt a scheduled campus event. That would include a student making a scene in the audience of a speech.

"There could be a cause of action against that student," said bill sponsor and freshman state Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples.

Much of Rommel’s bill — like many of the campus free speech bills sweeping the nation’s statehouses — is fairly benign, underscoring existing protections. It would abolish "free speech zones" that designate areas for on-campus debate. It would pave a clear path to sue over trampled rights.

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The representative said the bill wasn’t drafted in response to any certain event. He hopes to ward off controversy before it comes to Florida, by reiterating to public universities that "every square inch" of their outdoor grounds should be a free speech area.

His fellow sponsor, state Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said he is disturbed by a perceived shift away from the open exchange of ideas.

"Now we’re cordoning people off into little squares, into free speech zones," Baxley said. "It is a growing concern that we’re dissolving into a very narrow view of the world that has to be politically correct to a certain standard, and if you have anything to say that’s not in that little square, then the new tactic is not to debate you, but to silence you."

Campus free speech bills have caught fire this year in states from California to Wisconsin, often with bipartisan support.

The new laws come amid an intense year for the First Amendment on campus as universities have struggled to balance their legal duties and their belief in the marketplace of ideas with the concerns of students, from moral qualms to fears of violence.

This tidal wave of legislation has come largely from lawmakers who believe colleges have begun suppressing voices, particularly conservative ones, said Tom Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

But he said lawmakers sometimes forget that universities have a duty, too, to ensure safety, in extreme cases by cancelling events.

The language in the Rommel-Baxley bill is adapted from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, one of several right-of-center groups that have drafted model legislation on the topic.

It says anyone can exercise free speech, such as protesting, hosting a speaker and handing out fliers, in the outdoor parts of campus — as long as he or she is not breaking the law or "materially and substantially" disrupting school operations.

Schools may make a few content-neutral restrictions on the time, place and manner of speech. But they cannot, the bill says, create "free speech zones" by limiting protests and other speech to certain areas. Those zones nearly always fail when challenged, said Frank LoMonte, director of UF’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information.

A few Florida universities, such as the University of Central Florida and Florida State University, guide students to open areas well-suited for protests where they won’t need to worry about potential disruption, but officials stress that these zones are not restrictive.

"The entire campus is open for debate and discussion," said FSU spokesman Dennis Schnittker.

Others do have dedicated zones. The University of West Florida, for instance, has an "area for public expression" near its library. All non-scheduled gatherings must be held there.

LoMonte said the part of the bill that will likely draw some debate is the one disallowing the disruption of scheduled events.

"Do legislatures want to get in the business of compelling colleges to discipline people who act out in a disruptive way during a campus speaking event?" he asked.

Joe Cohn, legislation and policy director at FIRE, argued that the provision actually adds protections for speech.

"You want students to be able to have some level of exchange," he said. "But it turns into censorship when people are able to shut down each other."

The bill says that anyone whose rights are violated may seek compensatory damages at a minimum award of $500 and up to $100,000.

Rommel and Baxley intend to submit their bill for the 2018 legislative session, which starts Jan. 9.

Both Baxley and Rommel said that, all things considered, Spencer’s Oct. 19 speech at UF went well. They said they reject his white nationalist beliefs, yet remain glad his request to speak was honored. They didn’t think the hecklers infringed on Spencer’s rights.

Still, Rommel agreed, Spencer could theoretically make a claim that his speech was disrupted and that UF let it happen.

"That would be up to Spencer," Rommel said.

Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.

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