A sign on the Georgia State University campus denotes a free speech zone. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder
So-called college free-speech zones could soon be nothing but a memory in Georgia after the Senate passed a bill Monday designed to expand free speech areas at Georgia’s public schools campus-wide.
“House Bill 1 will protect and clarify the First Amendment rights our students should enjoy on our public colleges and universities,” said Sen. Bruce Thompson, a Republican from White who carried the bill in the Senate. “The bill seeks to accomplish this in two ways, first, by protecting what students may say, second, protecting where they can exercise free speech.”
The House passed the legislation last month, so it now is up to the governor to sign off for it to become law. The bill specifies that colleges cannot disrupt legal free speech and requires them to allow protests on all unrestricted outdoor areas of the campus, though they can place restrictions on the time, place and manner of protests, for example banning late night demonstrations or especially loud protests.
Democrats argued that language in the bill is too vague and could unintentionally hinder free speech by removing students’ rights to hold a counterprotest against a speaker they find objectionable.
Atlanta Democratic Sen. Elena Parent called supporters hypocrites for also supporting bills aimed at barring discussions of divisive racial concepts in K-12 classrooms.
“I think they lack, Senator, an intellectual throughline that establishes any sort of guiding foundational principle as it relates to free speech,” she said. “One indicates we don’t value free speech, the other one indicates we do, and so I find them hypocritical, and frankly, just pandering to incidents that are really not of consequence inviting any need for state level legislation, to people who are frankly misinformed and had been spun up by right wing media.”
During committee hearings on the bill, students and activists said the bill will protect groups who shout at and intimidate students based on their race or religion.
Thompson, who is running for state labor commissioner, rattled off a list of cases in which Georgia universities faced lawsuits stemming from allegations they illegally prevented students from speaking.
“Students continue to go to school under policies that are contrary, listen to me, contrary to the Supreme Court’s First Amendment precedent, harming our students, as well as universities’ culture,” he said.
“What this seeks to do is give the colleges the opportunity to make sure they’re not being sued over this,” he added. “Do not be misled. This is not for the right or the left, it’s for all of our students.”
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