Advertisement
  1. Education

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

Hundreds of protesters march on Hull Road against white nationalist Richard Spencer's speech on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville on Oct. 19. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Published Dec. 14, 2017

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.

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: WHITE NATIONALIST RICHARD SPENCER

In Gainesville, UF grapples with the specter of its own brush with white nationalists (Aug. 14, 2017)

UF security costs top $500,000 for Richard Spencer's talk on white 'separation' (Oct. 11, 2017)

UF president Kent Fuchs: 'Charlottesville changed everything' (w/video) (Oct. 18, 2017)

Richard Spencer speaks, and Gainesville emerges weary but at peace (Oct. 19, 2017)

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 cmcneill@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. University of South Florida forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle pieces together a skull that might have been Amelia Earhart's. SANDRA C. ROA  |  University of South Florida
    DNA from a skull found in 1940 could prove whether the famous aviator has been found.
  2. A Hernando County Sheriff's deputy talks to students in the cafeteria of Brooksville Elementary School in 2018. Earlier this month, the school district put forward a proposal to move away from a contract with the Sheriff and establish its own police force. On Tuesday, it announced it would drop that idea.
    Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis spoke out this week against the proposal.
  3. Representatives from the Pasco County school district and the United School Employees of Pasco discuss salary and benefits during negotiations on Sept. 18, 2019. JEFFREY SOLOCHEK  |  Times Staff Writer
    The sides have not set a time to resume discussions on teacher pay.
  4. Vials of medical marijuana oil. [Monica Herndon | Tampa Bay Times]
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
  5. The Pasco County school district is considering adopting a policy for student medical marijuana use on district property. [Getty Images]
    The rule will not change the district’s current approach to the touchy topic.
  6. Shown in 2002, Carolyn Hill, then the principal of Kenly Elementary School in east Tampa, celebrated after 78 of her students improved their state scores and were treated to lunch at The Colonnade Restaurant. Hill, now deceased, might be honored Tuesday as the Hillsborough County School Board considers naming a school for her in the SouthShore area. STAFF  |  Tampa Bay Times
    School Board members will select a name on Tuesday
  7. Miami-Dade School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, 55, is now in his 11th year leading the fourth largest school district in the nation. Miami Herald
    The charismatic leader of the nation’s fourth-largest school district has a complicated legacy. He almost took over the Pinellas County School District in 2008.
  8. Alachua County school superintendent Karen Clarke welcomes the crowd at a "listening session" Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019 to discuss changes in the Florida's education standards. A similar session is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Oct. 17 at Jefferson High, 4401 W Cypress St. in Tampa. The Florida Channel
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
  9. The Pinellas School Board recognized James Krull as the district's bus Driver of the Year at its meeting Tuesday. From left are board members Bill Dudley, Eileen Long, Carol Cook, Rene Flowers, Krull, and board members Nicole Carr, Joanne Lentino and Lisa Cane. Pinellas County Schools
    News and notes about K-12 schools and colleges in Pinellas County.
  10. In this image from a telecast by The Florida Channel, Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks to a Gainesville crowd that came to discuss revisions to the state's education standards this past week. “We’re going to end up with the world’s best standards,” Corcoran said. The Florida Channel
    The effort, ordered by Gov. Ron DeSantis, aims to transform the way students learn in public schools. A “listening session” is set for Tampa’s Jefferson High.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement