House bill to extend ‘free speech’ areas campus-wide spurs First Amendment debate

By: - January 27, 2022 1:00 am

Matthew Wiersema holds a graphic anti-abortion sign near the Georgia State University campus. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

On Tuesday, Matthew Wiersema strapped his GoPro to his chest, grabbed his megaphone and came to downtown Atlanta next to the Georgia State University campus with a large sign bearing an image of what appeared to be a bloody, mangled fetus.

Wiersema is a street preacher with a mission to outlaw abortion in the United States.

“There’s an abolitionist movement, different Christians across the nation, going out to different public areas to expose the atrocity happening, the abortion genocide, trying to abolish it in law and to eradicate bigotry towards preborn children in the culture,” he said.

Speakers looking to shock and outrage are a common sight on campus, said junior political science major Timothy McMillan. He was hanging out with some friends Wednesday afternoon in a campus common area next to a sign marked “Speech area 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.” About twice a month, he said he’ll see a demonstrator there, usually bearing a sign featuring a long list of different types of people who are going to hell and shouting at students to repent their sins.

“The last guy, he was here yesterday, he had a cam, and right when classes are getting out, he’s setting up on this bench over here, he’s got all his stuff, he’s waiting, and he knows the second that we get out of class, he starts spewing these things about, oh, this person is going to hell, that person is going to hell. And it’s a very strategic way of using free speech.”

College campuses tend to attract controversial speakers hoping to engage with young scholars, but the speakers are often restricted to designated free speech zones.

A sign on the Georgia State University campus denotes a free speech zone. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

A bill filed last year by Fayetteville Republican Josh Bonner to open up campuses to free speech is getting a new push in the Gold Dome. House Bill 1 passed the House Higher Education Committee last year, but did not receive a full House vote. Committee members heard the bill again Wednesday in a virtual meeting that saw students express concerns about its potential unintended effects.

“It protects what students can say by ensuring that our public universities and colleges do not ban expressive activity while on campus, so long as their conduct is lawful and does not disrupt the functioning of that college or university,” Bonner said. “It protects where they can speak by banning the so-called free speech zones, or areas of campus that are designated for free speech, rather than all of the commonly accessible areas of campus.”

The bill allows universities to impose “reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions” on speeches, for example, prohibiting late night demonstrations outside of a dorm.

Bonner said the bill is necessary to prevent lawsuits, giving the example of a Georgia Gwinnett College student who was prevented from handing out religious materials whose case went to the Supreme Court. In 2020, Georgia Tech agreed to pay $50,000 in a settlement after the university’s student government refused to sponsor a pro-life, anti-gay speaker.

It’s also a matter of principle, said Dalton Republican state Rep. Kasey Carpenter.

“I’m of the mindset that if you allow everyone free speech, then democracy flourishes, but when we start to pick and choose who we allow to speak and what they say, so long as no one’s harmed, I think that’s important for our college campuses,” he said. “Sometimes, we may not like what somebody’s saying, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have the right to say it.”

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Three students joined the virtual meeting to urge lawmakers to reconsider voting for the bill, saying their campuses often host provocative speakers who make students feel uncomfortable and unsafe.

Georgia Tech student Alex Ames said she and her friends often encounter armed protesters shouting hate speech aimed at students of racial or religious minorities.

“When my Muslim and Jewish friends walk on campus past these extremists to go in class, we try to move in groups to keep them safe,” she said. “They get shouted at, told to go to hell, told they’re going to go to hell. There’s threats, there have been instances of doxxing people’s private information, and keep in mind these are college students who pay tuition, often pay taxes, and this is not OK.”

Those groups would not be protected by the bill, Bonner said.

“House Bill 1 protects students and student groups, so I can’t imagine that any of the groups that she mentioned are recognized student groups on any of our college campuses,” he said. “If they are, and that kind of activity is taking place, I think we’ve got a much bigger issue, but House Bill 1 does not address the issues that Miss Ames brought up.”

But such outside groups could benefit from the protections as long as they have a student sponsor, said Javeria Jamil, legal and policy director for the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“HB 1 allows for outside agitators to come onto college campuses, and these agitators can be people who are brought in by student groups that already exist on campuses,” she said. “It allows for these agitators to provoke students, encourage chaos, and then to sue the school at taxpayers’ expense if the school officials take any action to protect their students. So this bill is in fact a green light for radical hate groups to enter the university grounds, all in the name of free speech.”

It’s a problem without an easy solution, said Clare Norins, director of the First Amendment Clinic at the University of Georgia.

“There is a balancing act to be had between allowing sufficient space and opportunity for members of the community like students and employees to express themselves and not force them into these cordoned off small areas of campus, but that has to be balanced against the universities and colleges’ need to not have their activities disrupted, not prevent students from attending classes and getting the education they need to receive,” she said.

“If you allow free speech anywhere on campus that’s outdoors and general access, you are going to subject students to harassment, and the First Amendment does have a high tolerance for offensive speech, but I think the issue is a little different when you’re in an educational setting where students have a right to not be harassed or bullied as they’re trying to get to class, so that raises the tension between respecting that free speech right, including the right to say offensive and hurtful things, but students have the right to study at a place where they’re not being harassed.”

American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia senior policy counsel Vasu Abhiraman said he is concerned the bill is too vague to be enforced and could unintentionally chill First Amendment rights by limiting students’ ability to counterprotest provocative speakers.

“What one student may deem a minor disruption could be a major source of distress to a different student,” he said. “This would allow the same conduct to be penalized differently based solely on the perception of the receiving audience, resulting in possible arbitrary enforcement. Attempts to define First Amendment rights frequently present such vagueness and chilling effect issues, and we can see some of those here.”

“The ACLU of Georgia believes that this legislation is not truly necessary in its current form,” he added. “At the very least, this committee should take a closer look at those sections that may not provide adequate notice of what is allowed as expressive activity on campuses, and therefore may chill speech. Of course, the First Amendment not only protects the expression of an idea, but also the ability of those to confront ideas that they disagree with.”

Committee Chairman Chuck Martin invited each of the students who spoke to contact him with information about what they would like to see changed before a committee vote.

“I would encourage those speakers today to communicate with me and with us so that we can focus on the issues they bring up, and if there are improvements to be made, we’ll make them,” he said. “We’re going to do that and move forward, whether the bill passes or the bill doesn’t pass is up to the will of the committee, but we’re going to ask everybody to bring those to us sooner than later.”

The House Higher Education Committee is scheduled to meet again next Wednesday, Martin said.

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.

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